The Casper City Council moved a step closer this week to increasing penalties for minors convicted of some alcohol-related crimes to include jail time – but council members said their intention is to be helpful, not harsh.
“People see the light when they feel the heat,” said Vice Mayor Charlie Powell, explaining that fines alone aren’t always enough to encourage young people to change their behavior.
The proposed ordinance, which passed a second vote Tuesday and requires one more to take effect, permits municipal judges to sentence minors convicted of public intoxication or possession of alcohol to serve up to six months in jail.
Casper Municipal Court handles about 55 minor in possession cases per year, according to a document sent from Judge Nichole Collier to the City Council. The current guidelines impose a $150 fine for a first offense, $350 for a second offense and $600 for a third offense.
“We would like the ability for the City Attorney to request and the Court to order probation, however, we cannot order probation unless such violation is a jailable offense,” states the document.
Councilman Mike Huber, a former judge, said he was approving the request because he does not believe the court will routinely sentence minors to jail for these crimes. Judges just want the ability to order probation, which Huber said he supports.
Most City Council members agreed that it would be beneficial for the judges to have more sentencing options.
“We need to trust the ability of our judges to do what is right,” said Councilman Bob Hopkins.
But Councilman Dallas Laird questioned why the Council should trust the judges when the state’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the municipal court had been illegally sentencing minors for years.
The Casper Municipal Court used to routinely order minors charged with possession to serve probation, a practice that was halted in July after the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled it was illegal because city ordinance limited the sentencing to a fine.
The ruling confirmed that of Natrona County District Court Judge Catherine Wilking, who also found in 2016 that the court was not legally permitted to sentence minors to probation for a non-jailable offense.
Laird, an attorney, was the lawyer who first challenged the city court’s practice when his teenage client received probation after being charged with possession of alcohol in 2015.
Tuesday’s vote comes as the city grapples with other alcohol-related issues.
In February, Police Chief Keith McPheeters asked the Council to recognize that the over-service of alcohol is creating serious challenges for the city. Bar patrons who become too intoxicated eventually leave the establishment and can then create problems for other citizens and the police, he said.
Fifty-nine percent of people in Casper who are booked into jail are intoxicated and almost half of all drivers arrested for DUIs are more than the twice the legal limit, according to the chief.
McPheeters advised the city to strengthen the penalties for liquor-license holders who violate the regulations.
Vice Mayor Charlie Powell previously told the Star-Tribune that the Council appreciated the chief’s suggestions and will be re-examining the city’s demerit system this year.