Buzz builds over St. Paul social host rule

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 5, 2009 - 11:09 PM

Meant to stem underage drinking, such laws are gaining popularity. Minneapolis is considering one, too.

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Rugby players and St.Thomas students living near campus on Marshall Ave. in St.Paul are (L. to R.) Brian Salzer, Tom Maher, Sam Glynn, and Ross Alberts.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Used to be, a 19-year-old could throw down $5 for a red plastic cup, unlimited keg beer and a night of revelry in a house near one of St. Paul's many colleges.

But soon, a 19-year-old might have a harder time finding a place to party.

St. Paul, with a history of bootleggers and breweries, is the largest city in the state to adopt a social host ordinance, which makes it a crime to give minors a place to drink. It takes effect Saturday, and folks on all sides of the issue of underage drinking -- and the often aggravating side effects -- are waiting to see what happens.

The consensus prediction: Fewer raucous house parties and less puking in neighborhood bushes. But there are no illusions that it will eliminate underage drinking.

"More than anything, it will deepen the bad blood between students and neighbors," said Grant Goerke, a 21-year-old senior at the University of St. Thomas in Merriam Park.

For all practical purposes, the private Catholic college, which has 6,100 undergraduate students, has become ground zero for the origination and application of the ordinance.

"Do I think it will stop anything? No," said Ross Alberts, a 21-year-old St. Thomas senior. He has noticed a new trend -- white sheets of paper on house doors during parties, telling minors to stay out.

Perhaps the notes are a legal hedge to avoid crossing the new ordinance, which says it's a crime to knowingly host an event where minors can obtain or consume alcohol, regardless of whether the host providing the booze. It's a misdemeanor, with an ultimate penalty of a $1,000 fine and as long as 90 days in jail.

The campus has been buzzing about the ordinance. Questions abound about how it will affect people and parties. Neighbors, meanwhile, are waiting to see if it will mean quieter nights and cleaner mornings.

"We're hopeful it will reduce the number of out-of-control parties," said Scott Banas, who lives two blocks from the university and is a co-chair of a community group that works with St. Thomas concerning various neighborhood issues. He pointed out that strict alcohol policies at the university cause students to fan out into the neighborhood.

There has long been tension between the neighborhood and the university, although both sides say they mostly value the other as an asset.

Things boiled over this fall, as neighbors noticed more roving bands of students looking for a party or leaving one.

Urinating in a yard or passing out on someone's lawn are livability issues and can drive people away, City Attorney John Choi said.

St. Thomas supports the ordinance, said John Hershey, the university's neighborhood liaison. He said his goal is to try to educate students about the disruptions they can cause to neighbors -- and to their own lives -- by drinking to excess. He said students are usually pretty good about shaping up once he's had to visit their home because of a complaint.

Variation on a theme

Often, social host ordinances target high school drinking. But in St. Paul, the ordinance arose from what happens outside the halls of higher learning.

"College students are the origin of what we identified as the problem," said Council Member Russ Stark, who sponsored the St. Paul ordinance.

Social host ordinances have gained popularity in recent years; about 30 cities have enacted some form of them. An ordinance based on the one in St. Paul has been introduced in Minneapolis, and could be approved within months.

Council Member Cam Gordon, whose ward includes the University of Minnesota and borders St. Paul, sponsored it as a way to deal with underage and binge drinking. He also wants to quash the notion that students can leave St. Paul to party in Minneapolis because they won't get busted as badly.

Party hosts have adapted

Some St. Thomas students say the ordinance is just another in a series of harsh crackdowns, and ask what problem is really trying to be solved.

Tom Maher, a 21-year-old senior, said aggressive enforcement can add to neighborhood disturbances. When police bust a party and tell people to leave, Maher said, that puts more people carousing on the streets.

Jess Novak, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she doesn't think the ordinance is unfair.

"I can understand where it's coming from," she said. "But I think it's unrealistic."

Nobody spoke against the ordinance at a City Council public hearing in October.

Between 2005 and 2008, St. Paul police presented more than 1,300 cases to the City Attorney's Office for prosecution of underage drinking.

There are laws against minors buying, possessing and consuming alcohol. There are laws against of-age people providing booze to minors. Until social host ordinances began to gain traction, there was no way to punish people who gave minors a place to drink.

As the laws have changed, the parties have adapted.

Gone, for the most part, are the notorious party houses that throw multi-keg blowouts every weekend. Parties are spread around to different houses, so it's harder for police to develop a pattern of disturbances at one address, St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Schnell said.

Having a keg might make it easier to nail someone for giving alcohol to a minor, so bottles and cans -- often bring your own -- are the new norm. According to Schnell, that's a significant issue, because it isn't about alcohol being obtained at a location but being allowed to be consumed there.

"There's not a great risk of being caught," Schnell said. "We might catch 90 people at one party, but another a few blocks away has 60.

"We will never arrest our way out of the problem of underage drinking."

Social host ordinances begin to address that, because they could reduce the number of locations where underage drinking is allowed, Schnell said.

St. Paul police plan to talk with past offenders about the new ordinance the week it takes effect, Schnell said. "If we arrest nobody, it's a win."

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148

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