CHAMPAIGN — Students can go to Campustown bars when they’re 19. But if they get caught drinking, they could be fined up to $700 if they use a fake ID.
The city puts certain alcohol-related ordinance violations, such as underage drinking and using a fake ID, in its highest tier of offenses, for which the fine is $350.
At this week’s city council meeting, several council members said those fines are too high and instructed staff to adjust them for consideration at a future meeting.
“We’ll let you go to the bar when you’re 19, but don’t drink while you’re there. We want you to go the bars and not go to a party because you’re safer in the bars,” District 4 representative Greg Stock said. “The hypocrisy is a lot.”
He compared it to middle-tier ordinance violations like battery, retail theft and damaging property that are fined at $255.
“The 19-year-old kid drinking a beer in a bar is not as serious to me as somebody who’s damaging property or battering someone,” Stock said. “So I think that those are a little offline to what they ought to be.”
“I don’t know what the magic number is, but I think that to make those the most serious fine sounds a little bit more like a money grab than it does actually protecting the community, in my mind,” Stock said.
In fiscal 2019, the city collected $635,971 in fines, which staff noted is less than 1 percent of the city’s general revenue fund. “Champaign does not use fines as a significant source of revenue to make up the City budget,” staff wrote in a report to council.
At-large council member Matthew Gladney also spoke in favor of lowering the underage alcohol fines.
“These are people who can vote, and these are people who can serve in the armed forces. But if they get caught with alcohol or purchasing alcohol or trying to buy cannabis, they get this $350 fine,” he said. “Meanwhile, animal cruelty and assault and battery has a nearly $100 less of a fine. That makes no sense to me.”
District 2 representative Alicia Beck said it didn’t make sense for violations such as animal cruelty, assault, fighting and battery to be at the lower $255 level.
“I think that those are worthy of a $350 fine,” she said.
District 5 representative Vanna Pianfetti expressed concern with certain fines, calling them “out of whack in some ways.”
“Conceivably, we have a $700 fine on a minor,” Pianfetti said. “I’m not sure a student is going to come up with $350 in 21 days, or $700.”
District 3 representative Angie Brix called the fines “a little steep” and said she’d support giving people more time to pay them.
In the past three years, 840 of the 863 people, or 97 percent, fined for fake IDs have paid their fines within 21 days, avoiding court. And 995 of the 1,052 people, or 96 percent, fined for underage drinking paid their fine within 21 days.
If a case goes to court, the city said its legal staff generally puts in five times the resources compared to processing a fine payment.
There are more than 120 types of ordinance violations, which the city has put into three tiers of fines — $205, $255 and $350, along with a unique $50 fine for marijuana possession that was reduced in 2018 from $350.
The city council established the fines in 1988 as a way to settle an ordinance violation without going to court.
The council initially set the maximum tier at $125, increasing it in 1994 to $500 and two years later to $750. In 1997, the council lowered the maximum tier to $205 with an automatic $10 increase every two years that is currently on hold until July 1.
Mayor Deb Feinen said she was generally on board with the other council members’ comments and also suggested lowering the fine for public possession of alcohol from $350 to $50.
“You have a 21-year-old individual, as council member (Tom) Bruno would say if he was here, carrying a beer across the street to visit his neighbor’s barbecue, and it’s a $350 fine,” Feinen said. “That makes no sense to me in the face of the other ones that were listed.”