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.”
In one high-profile case, Kevin Brockway, 16, wrapped his car around a tree, killing himself and seriously injuring his passenger, after the two left a party in St. Paul in 1998. A 16-year-old friend had talked her dad into buying a keg and root-beer schnapps for her New Year’s Eve party.
The father had set the rules: No one was to get drunk and no one was to drive. He thought that would ensure the kids’ safety.
The ordinance does not apply to people who allow their son or daughter to have a glass of wine with dinner or during a religious observance.
Cracking down on campus
In St. Paul, Lt. Paul Paulos said the social host ordinance is enforced “quite frequently,” mostly in and around college campuses.
“It controls the disorderly conduct or lewd conduct — urinating in public and so forth,” he said.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said a copy of the social host ordinance is included with orientation materials for students at the University of Minnesota.
“We have not actually charged cases that often,” she said. “The Minneapolis Police Department and the University of Minnesota have really used it as an educational and preventive tool as much as a prosecution tool.”
It’s also used to dissuade apartment complexes that hold beer parties to try to attract younger tenants, Segal said.
Most city ordinances are prosecuted by the city attorney’s office.
In Scott County, the county attorney’s office prosecutes all city and county cases. Last year, there were 13 social host ordinance citations, said County Attorney Pat Ciliberto.
“We here in Scott County believe it’s a very effective tool in combating underage drinking,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, I do not recall anyone being a repeat offender.”