An Ohio University student went out for a night on Court Street before beginning his first fest season in Athens.
He was only freshman and still underage, but went to the bars with a group of seniors. The freshman was holding his beer in a bar, another patron yelled “undercover” and the freshman, shocked, put his beer down.
Five minutes later he was outside the bar, standing in handcuffs after an undercover officer arrested him on the charge of underage alcohol possession.
“I didn’t understand the risks of entering a bar on 18-and-up night,” he said. “There were a bunch of people drinking there too (who looked underage), but only me and two others were busted by undercovers.”
The student wishes to remain anonymous, because the charges have been expunged from his record after he served eight community service hours and went through the City of Athens’ diversion program, which is meant to serve as an alternative to criminal prosecution for first time offenders.
While the charges were dropped, it took more than just community service to expunge the arrest. He paid more than $300 in legal fees, completed a three-hour alcohol class and was under probation through the university into the next academic year.
In 2014, when that arrest occurred, OU students were arrested significantly more often than students in other similar-sized college towns around the state. OU has been listed as one of the top party schools for years, but the ranking has been giving a negative light to the city and has led to increased police presence.
Because of that ranking the Ohio Investigative Unit (OIU) sends officers to Athens for major events, such as the annual Halloween Block Party or street festivals, simply called “fests,” that occur regularly throughout the spring. Although the OIU agents are more visible at fests because they’re lingering around uniformed officers, but they’re harder to spot in bars. OIU officials are plain-clothed and drive their own cars.
A female student at Bowling Green State University was also arrested in 2014. She, too, has gone through a diversion program to have her offense expunged from her record, but she wasn’t caught off guard by her arrest like the OU student.
“I was really drunk and I deserved it,” she said. “I was passed out in a bathroom at a bar and I was covered in blood.”
She had fallen in a stall while vomiting and scraped herself before passing out. She doesn’t remember who found her, but she was taken out of the bar and an undercover officer intervened.
Although the OIU sends undercover officers to many cities Athens has its own enforcement office, while Bowling Green, Kent and Oxford do not. That could help explain why OIU officers arrested 479 underage offenders on alcohol charges, which is almost four times as many as the other three similarly sized towns.
There are six districts in Ohio and the spokesperson said they have the ability to bring any or all of the state’s 100 sworn officers to any town on any given weekend.
Then again, the culture of parties in Athens could be the bigger indicator. A spokesperson from the OIU said the city of Athens takes a proactive approach to ensure there are enough police personnel in town during “fests.”
“The various fests attract large numbers of people from campus, the city and elsewhere around the region and state,” OU Police Department lieutenant Timothy Ryan said. “Due to the influx of people, we do typically see more arrests and citations around those times.”
The OIU spokesperson shared similar thoughts, saying increased activity and the number of festivals that occur around the OU campus lead to more officers coming to town, though they’re not always specifically in town to patrol large events.
“Each event is slightly different based on operational plans and past history of those events,” the spokesperson said.
Regardless of what reasons bring the OIU officers to Athens, OU students are at greater risks of being arrested than students at other schools.
“We have meetings with police department, sheriff’s office and city officials to plan these events,” the spokesperson said. “It’s not just the Ohio Investigative unit, bring your agents in for a weekend — we actually plan to make sure everybody knows what each agency is responsible for.”
Why do you think college students are being arrested? What are the biggest legal challenges they face? Sound off with our survey.