Published Sun, Apr 29, 2012 12:58 pm Dateline
Published Sun, Apr 29, 2012 12:58 pm Dateline
High Fest in Athens is a block party held annually by Ohio University students. Unlike most everybody else, Erik Lockhart is not here to hoist a few cold ones.
Lockhart is here to work.
He is the Agent in Charge of the Athens District Office of the Ohio Investigative Unit.
Lockhart and other agents are in street clothes, undercover, looking for violations of Ohio's liquor laws.
"More times than not, it's going to be the individuals who are drawing attention to themselves: the people who are causing a disturbance, yelling, acting disorderly. People that appear intoxicated, can't walk, are stumbling around, having no idea where they are at. At lot of times, those are the ones we walk up to. After that initial contact, then it comes out that they are in fact, underaged. For the most part those individuals are underage that are acting like that," said Lockhart.
One violation they see more often than any other is underage consumption.
Many OU students are under 21 and its not legal for them to drink alcoholic beverages.
"Sometimes, if they're too intoxicated, we don't feel like they'll be able to get home by themselves, we'll have them try and contact someone to come and get them. If that fails, the next step is to do a six-hour hold at regional jail until they sober up and make sure they can get home safely. Sometimes, after initial contact, if they are still acting disorderly, or they're getting out of hand, we have the option, we will take those individuals into custody."
From there, Lockhart says, officers will issue a summons, or what some people refer to as a ticket. The summons will be for a mandatory court date in Athens Municipal Court. Lockhart says they usually try and schedule the summons a week or two out to allow the individual to work the appearance into their schedule.
"A lot of the people we deal with, you can just look at them and know, you know, we probably just did them a favor. Whether they know it or not, a lot of them will realize that somewhere down the line," said Lockhart.
Ohio University has a national reputation as a party school.
Agent Lockhart has seen the action up close.
Lockhart is 33 years old and has been with the Ohio Investigative Unit since 2000.
The young people he charges may call him a party-pooper - or worse - but he doesn't see it that way.
"We get the 'hey, I'm 18, I'm old enough to fight for my country, I'm old enough to drink a beer' -- we get a lot of that and the common response is 'okay well you don't need to be out in public, you don't need to be acting this way. How are you getting home?'" said Lockhart.
He calls binge drinking a serious problem, particularly at OU. But, he says, officers main concern is how a person under the influence is getting home.
"Often times, they just look at you," he says.
Tom Pyle is the Athens Chief of Police. Agent Lockhart and fellow agents worked High Fest because Pyle asked them.
"They are there to catch people in the act of violating liquor laws, you know, sales without a permit and underage consumption, those kinds of things," said Pyle. "Our goals there are more over-arching. When we work an event, like Halloween or Palmerfest, we're there to maintain order."
Chief Pyle says APD requests help from the Ohio Investigative Unit during the fest season in the spring and, of course, for Halloween.
"We happen to know that at these events, a lot of liquor laws are being violated, a lot of underage people are coming to these things, hiding in the bushes and drinking beer," said Pyle.
Julie Hind is a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, which includes the Ohio Investigative Unit.
She says OU is not the only college alcohol hotspot.
"The agents are out around the state of Ohio. This coming weekend, they will be at the University of Akron. Last weekend, they were assisting Kent State. I know in the past, they've been over at Miami. I know a couple of weeks ago, they were over at Bowling Green. And it's not just colleges. In the summer time, the Athens office works at the Jamboree in the Hills, the Dayton-Cincinnati office works the country music concert and you have various concerts throughout the season that people will flock to," said Hind.
Hind says the number of Ohio Investigative Unit agents has dropped in recent years and officials wish it was higher.
These agents are also responsible for enforcement of food stamp and tobacco laws.
Ten to 15 people work in the Athens District office, which covers 19 counties in Southeast Ohio.