Social host ordinances help curb underage drinking

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2014 - 9:38 PM

Measures that hold property owners responsible, like the one used for charges in an 18-year-old’s death, now used across state.

The death of a teenager who fled an underage drinking party in Lac qui Parle County this month was at least the third such case in the past five years — and a perfect example of why police have welcomed a wave of new “social host” laws that aim to crack down on teen drinking.

Such ordinances hold residents or property owners criminally liable for underage drinking at their homes — not only if they knew about it and condoned it, but even if they simply should have known.

With prom season and high school graduation approaching, law enforcement officials throughout Minnesota said the ordinances have become an important weapon in their fight against underage drinking. Less than a decade after the state’s first such ordinance took effect, the laws have been enacted in 109 cities and 22 counties, covering more than 2.5 million of the state’s 5.3 million residents, according to MADD Minnesota.

Police officials say that the approach is working and that the laws have proved to be a deterrent to big drinking parties among teens.

Scott Knight, police chief in Chaska, which in 2007 was the first city to enact a social host ordinance, said it has been “wildly successful” and “a quantum leap in public safety.”

The idea was first broached by a patrol officer who told the chief that there was no way to hold a person who provided a venue for an underage drinking party liable unless they could prove the person provided the alcohol.

Nineteen-year-old Sean Humphrey died in February 2007 after he tried to walk home from a party in Chaska. He blacked out, hit his head and was found by a snowplow driver.

No charges were filed against the party’s host because no state statute was applicable. The social host ordinance was in the works but hadn’t been adopted yet, Knight said.

Although violations are misdemeanors, they come with a mandatory court appearance and a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. Hosts also could face insurance and civil liability as well as more serious criminal charges.

The 19-year-old host of the party in Lac qui Parle County and his father were charged under that county’s ordinance in connection with the death of Michael Anyasike, 18.

Seeing an impact

Knight said the more people become aware of the ordinance, the less frequently officers have to enforce it.

“In a residential neighborhood, you can’t have a party like this without attracting attention,” he said. “That’s how I know we’re not being called to these things as much.”

Sheriff Dave Bellows spearheaded the effort to pass a Dakota County social host ordinance in 2011. Since it went into effect in May 2012, deputies have issued about a half-dozen citations, he said.

“We would go out on calls … and would come upon a large number of kids who were all of a sudden running into the woods,” he said. “A lot of times, we would find out that the homeowner or the homeowner’s kids were sponsoring these large beer parties. They weren’t furnishing the alcohol necessarily, but they were providing the place. We knew we needed to deal with this.”

No sneaking around?

Authorities have tried to combat the idea among some parents that providing a seemingly safe place to party is better for their kids than making them sneak around.

“That’s a ridiculous argument,” Knight said. “Would they use the same logic if their child were going to use [drugs]? ‘Well, at least I know they’re doing heroin in my living room where I can watch them.’ There’s no logic.”

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