Forget about house parties with underage drinking, even out in the rural areas. Dakota County now has a social host ordinance and the power to bring misdemeanor criminal charges against adults who give those under 21 a place to consume alcohol.

The new law, approved by the County Board May 8, takes effect in early June across the townships and small cities in the southern part of the county patrolled by the Sheriff's Office.

"Alcohol still is a major concern for public safety and public health," Sheriff Dave Bellows said. "I feel strongly that this is an ordinance that does benefit us in trying to deal with the issue of consumption of alcohol with minors."

Under the new law, adults hosting a gathering where deputies find underage drinking could only be charged if they have "reasonable knowledge" of the alcohol consumption. And it doesn't let youngsters off the hook -- they will still face charges for underage consumption.

But if, for example, a parent is out of town and the child throws a party where alcohol is served without the adults' knowledge, the social host ordinance wouldn't apply.

"If parents don't have any knowledge of it, they're not responsible," Bellows said.

He said he anticipates the ordinance will lead to charges six to 12 times per year.

Dakota is the 19th county in Minnesota to institute a social host ordinance.

There are 83 cities, including Lakeville, South St. Paul, Apple Valley, Rosemount, West St. Paul and Northfield in Dakota County, that have instituted such laws since 2007.

Neighboring Scott and Goodhue counties also have social host ordinances.

In his pitch to the County Board, Bellows noted that the social host ordinance covering the southern part of the county would be helpful to make rules clear and consistent, even across municipal boundaries.

Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof, whose officers patrol the first Dakota County city to enact a social host law, agrees, especially as graduation party season approaches.

"The school district boundaries go far beyond our city boundaries," Vonhof said, noting that the Lakeville schools draw students from rural areas of the county. "It's one of those things that I think takes a full community response. It's everybody working together."

Vonhof said Lakeville police draw on the social host ordinance 12 to 15 times a year. The scenarios that lead to charges vary, he said, but often it's an older sibling or relative hosting an event where alcohol is served to everyone, including those underage.

"It's been useful," Vonhof said. "It really brought up the discussion of underage drinking at parties."

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286