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Underage drinking in college town: How strictly should police, prosecutors enforce laws? 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On the last day of college classes after her freshman fall semester, Maggie Paxton began drinking with friends in the dorms at the University of Florida – students call it "pre-gaming" – before hitting Gainesville’s popular Midtown bars across a busy street from campus. She was 18.

Despite her age and carrying a fake ID, Paxton ended up at Ladies Night at the Grog House Grill – a college town bar especially popular among undergraduates – with at least two friends, ages 18 and 20, where they spent about two more hours drinking. Her friends said Paxton never told them she was leaving the bar: a fateful decision to try to walk alone back to campus.

Crossing University Avenue – in the dark, outside marked crosswalks and against the traffic light – Paxton was fatally struck by a BMW. Her blood alcohol level, which has never been publicly reported until now, was .27 – more than three times the legal limit in Florida, according to police and medical examiner records. She was still wearing her Ladies Night bracelet from the bar indicating she could be served drinks.

Paxton – whose movements that night were described in a 34-page police report – wasn't the only student under 21 drinking to excess at Florida's flagship university. City and campus police have effectively stopped imposing criminal penalties in most cases for underage drinking starting in 2018, when the number of criminal complaints fell to 14 compared to nearly 200 a year earlier.

It is a public policy choice by law enforcement and prosecutors that weighs the risks of underage and excessive drinking against prosecuting first-time offending young adults for behaviors common on college campuses.

Now when students are caught by police, the State Attorney's Office diverts such cases to a program of public service or charitable contributions to avoid a stain on students' criminal records when they are first-time, non-violent offenders.

"We simply ask officers not to arrest," the elected State Attorney Bryan Kramer said. He estimated thousands of cases have been steered into the office’s diversion program.

“The intent of the program is to prevent the creation of a criminal record for first-time offenders who – have in mind – are non-violent,” Kramer said.

In October 2018 – 10 months after authorities in this college town backed off enforcement of underage drinking – Max Alexander Press of Sarasota, who was 20 at the time, ran into University Avenue where a car hit him, police said. Press said he had four mixed alcoholic drinks before the accident, police records said. He was hospitalized and survived, and a month later paid a $57 traffic citation for stepping in front of a car, court records showed. He did not respond to a phone message.

Five months later, Kelsea Potthast, who was 20 and a UF student, ran into the path of an oncoming car and was struck on Northwest 17th Street, directly north of campus, according to a police report. She declined to be taken to the hospital.

Potthast was suspected to have been drinking, the police report said, but was cited with a ticket only for failing to obey traffic laws. She paid the $57.50 fee days later, according to court records, but the question of her being underage and her level of intoxication was never addressed in any reports or records. Potthast disputed in a phone call that she was intoxicated and said the car that hit her was a ride-share vehicle.

“I think it was more of a matter of unsafe driving,” Potthast said. “I mean, it happened between two stop signs in a distance of 20 feet – there’s no reason a car should be hitting someone there.”

Paxton's death in December 2020 was the most serious example of the consequences of illegal drinking or binge drinking among college students. Her blood alcohol figure – near the level of blacking out and needing medical help – meant she would have been stumbling back to her dorm intoxicated.

"That’s a very severe impairment, and the ability to walk in a straight line would be virtually impossible," said Dr. Peter Sayeski, a physiology professor in UF's College of Medicine. Most weekends in Gainesville, UF students are brought to the student health center or end up at UF Health Shands Hospital from consuming too much alcohol, he said.

Two months after Paxton's death, one of her friends with her at the bar that night, Riya M. Patel of Gainesville, was stopped by a campus police officer who said Patel and a friend were "stumbling" around midnight across one of the main roads through campus.

The officer filed a felony complaint against Patel for carrying a fake Georgia driver's license that said she was exactly three years older than she was, but Kramer's office dropped the charge to a misdemeanor under a deferred prosecution agreement then dismissed the case entirely four months later. Patel declined to discuss the night Paxton died or her subsequent arrest.

Grog House closed its doors permanently over the weekend, but its liquor license was never suspended. Across Gainesville, most of the rarely enforced underage drinking complaints stemmed from students there, including 16 complaints last year, all 17 complaints in 2021 and one-third of the city’s complaints the previous year. Managers there declined to return repeated messages asking to discuss their business.

How are underage students convincing bouncers to let them inside bars to drink? Paxton and her friend, Patel, were carrying fake IDs from Georgia, police said. Florida treats such fake ID arrests as felonies, but in nearly every case, prosecutors reduce the charge to a misdemeanor under a deferred prosecution deal that eventually wipes the conviction from their court records.

At UF, campus police have forwarded nearly four-dozen felony complaints to state prosecutors against students caught with fake IDs over the past four years. All charges were either dropped or reduced to misdemeanors, except three students had their charges dismissed entirely.

In another case, Jacob Noah Schafran Lehman of Lake Worth, who was 20 at the time, said he used a friend's ID and paid the doorman at Fat Daddy's $20 to allow him inside in September 2020, police said. The bar is next to the Grog House. Lehman, holding a cup of what he said was tequila, tried to flee after two patrol officers made a surprise sweep about 10 p.m. inside the bar, according to police records.

Police, who said Lehman apologized and said he was drunk, arrested him on a misdemeanor complaint of alcohol possession by someone under 21. Prosecutors dropped the case entirely six weeks later because they said in court records they didn't have enough evidence to convict him. Lehman did not respond to a phone message.

Just weeks after Paxton died, city and university officials quickly began plans to protect students – sober or drunk. They added speed tables on University Avenue and reduced the speed limit there to 25 mph. Police ticketed hundreds of drivers to enforce the new laws. Earlier this year, UF prohibited anyone from driving on many interior roads on campus. There has been no acknowledgement that, in Paxton’s case, she had been drinking heavily that night, or that one of the most popular bars among students across the street from campus had allowed her inside.

In a similar case earlier this year at Louisiana State University, a 19-year-old student, Madison Brooks, was drinking at a popular bar in Baton Rouge, where she was last seen leaving with four young men. She was killed about 3 a.m. Jan. 15, after she was struck standing in the road by a car with a blood alcohol level of .319%. Sheriff’s deputies said she had been raped.

LSU’s president, William Tate IV, said the bar was culpable in Brooks’ death – noting that all but one of the people involved were under 21. Days after she died state regulators suspended the liquor license for the bar, which announced last month it was closing permanently.

“All but one of the suspects involved in this horrific scenario were underage yet were able to consume alcohol at a local bar,” Tate said in a statement. “As such, our action plan starts with a deep and relentless focus on any establishment that profits off our students by providing alcohol to underage individuals.”

The University of Florida’s president at the time, Kent Fuchs, did not respond to requests to discuss the case in Gainesville. He praised the road changes made after Paxton’s death.

"The death of any member of our community, no matter who they are, is tragic," Fuchs said in August. "I go every year to memorial services for students who have passed away for various reasons, and it's heart wrenching."

Paxton’s death in 2020 was a hit and run. The driver of the BMW fled the scene and wasn’t arrested until seven months later, after an investigation that included use of a sophisticated tracking technology that captured an image of the BMW’s license plate driving blocks away just before the accident.

The driver, Joshua A. Figueroa, 33, is serving a six-year prison term at a minimum security prison in Lake Butler, north of Gainesville. The required minimum sentence in such cases is four years, which Paxton’s parents opposed. He was also sentenced to 15 years of probation after he is released, expected in 2028.

In a prison interview, Figueroa said he was “regretful I didn't stay to help, but I place the blame entirely on the actions of Ms. Paxton and the establishments that allowed a 19 year old to get that drunk or even served her in the first place.”

At his sentencing, Figueroa’s lawyers never cited Paxton’s level of intoxication or the bar’s potential liability in the accident. Figueroa said the judge, Phillip A. Pena, disregarded those factors. Paxton’s autopsy and toxicology report was released publicly – over the objections of her family and the prosecutor in the case – only after Figueroa was sentenced. They did not want the report released, at all.

“We were aware that Ms. Paxton was intoxicated very early into the case, but the severity of such was not known until early 2022,” Figueroa said.

Paxton’s father, James, said Figueroa should never be released from prison. “If they asked Jim Paxton what his sentence would be, it would be that we wouldn’t see him again,” he said after Figueroa was sentenced. “Now we have to celebrate Maggie’s life.”

Her mother, Lisa, had called Figueroa a coward.

“There’s nothing that will bring our daughter back, and the time the coward spends in jail will hopefully be sufficient time for him to reflect on his actions and inactions,” she said just before he was sent to prison. “Perhaps he will understand the enormity of taking another human life and have one ounce of empathy or human decency.”

A family friend of the Figueroas, Raymond Carthy of Gainesville, wrote to the judge after the case and said Maggie Paxton’s drinking that night should have played a factor in court.

“As the presiding official, you were fully aware of her condition and the unlawful actions that led to it, yet this information appeared to be as sealed off from the decision process as it was from the media and the court,” wrote Carthy, a doctoral researcher on fish and wildlife at the University of Florida. He added that the prison sentence seemed fair based on Figueroa fleeing the scene that night and never coming forward willingly.

Figueroa’s father, Miguel, said his son’s defense lawyer directed the family to remain quiet during the legal case.

“It was a horrible accident, and it was a horrible situation,” he said. “I would not wish that upon anybody, but putting all the blame on my son? If they want closure, they need to look deep down into their heart and realize that Maggie – she made a mistake.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at troy.myers@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.