GRAND FORKS -- Grand Forks officials are looking into ways to govern party buses, but as the law stands, those companies can allow alcohol on their vehicles because of an exception to open container laws.
Though drinking in the back of a car on a public street is illegal, that same action is legal in the back of party buses because of the exception, which allows drinking on commercially-chartered vehicles, such as buses and limousines.
The Community and Campus Committee to Reduce High-Risk Alcohol Use and the City Council's Service and Safety Committee are focusing on whether underage drinking is happening on party buses. The committees also are reviewing feedback and research on whether the city should move forward with trying to regulate the buses.
"It's enough of a gray area that I think that's where the interest lies in trying to get some sort of expectations or regulations on the particular industry before they get too far into the self-regulation area," Grand Forks Police Lt. Derek Zimmel said.
The law allows for alcohol to be consumed on commercially-chartered vehicles, as well as in group-use or for-hire vehicles, which covers companies that operate limousine services and party buses. However, that does not allow the driver of one of those vehicles to drink or for a large vehicle, such as an RV, to have open containers because it's not in commercial use, Zimmel said. Grand Forks City Code uses the same language as the state law for commercially-chartered vehicles.
These types of party buses came under scrutiny when the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department arrested 26 people earlier this month on suspicion of underage drinking after a party bus was rented for a 20-year-old's birthday. The alleged underage drinkers were arrested after a bartender at Johnny's Bar in Emerado, N.D., noticed patrons were using fake IDs.
The bus that was carrying the the passengers was owned by Space Cruise in Grand Forks. Owner Matt Gust said when a party rents a bus, he asks if the riders will be at least 21 years old and if there will be underage passengers. He said the group with the alleged underage drinkers told him everyone that would be on the bus would be at least 21 years old, adding they had fake IDs.
The company was not charged, but since that incident, Space Cruise has become stricter about making sure riders under 21 are not drinking on its buses, Gust said.
"What we have done,--and I have correlated this with the police and the Sheriff's Department and what they've told me--and we have strictly gone by this, is that you can still have people that are 21 and older, and you can still have people who are 21 and younger on the same bus," Gust said. "They just want to make sure that the under-21s aren't drinking and that they absolutely are not using fake IDs to get into bars. We have hammered down on that."
Zimmel said the Police Department has seen underage drinking on party buses in the past, but it's hard to put a number on how prevalent the problem is.
"To what extent there's underage drinking, that's the great unknown," Zimmel said. "I can't say it's a terrible problem because I don't know."
Gust said his drivers check the IDs of those who are drinking on the bus, and those found to be drinking underage are removed.
Gust said he has been working with the police on the issue and that drivers have never hindered officers from coming onto the buses. He said he wants his company to be part of the solution, adding he will comply with regulations that the city approves.
Party buses, Zimmel said, are part of a larger problem of underage drinking in Grand Forks.
In Minnesota, party buses are regulated under nearly the same law. While open containers are not allowed in most vehicles, that does not apply to "motor carriers" that are used in for-hire transportation.
East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund said while no regulations are in the works in his city, he would support tougher restrictions, particularly when it comes to underage drinking on buses.
"It doesn't ever hurt to be proactive," Hedlund said. "I wouldn't be opposed to it, but I guess I haven't been hearing about us having a particular issue with that. It certainly could happen, but I'm not aware of it having been a problem in our town at this point in time."
Gust gave the city credit for trying to reduce underage drinking but said buses aren't the problem.
"Underage people drink; they have forever," he said. "If they are not doing it at a bus, they are doing it at someone's house, they are doing it in a car, they are doing it somewhere. And prior to a couple of weeks ago, at least we could control the scene, control the situation, and make sure stuff isn't getting out of control."
"To what extent there's underage drinking, that's the great unkown." Grand Forks Police Lt. Derek Zimmel.