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New city ordinance to target adults who enable teen drinking

The Mercer Island City Council is working on an ordinance that would fine adults who host teen drinking parties at their home. Last January, the Council directed staff to examine the option of creating a civil infraction as an additional method of deterring underage drinking in Mercer Island.

An underage gathering where alcohol is consumed “constitutes a public nuisance, is an immediate threat to public health and safety, and is prohibited,” the draft ordinance declares.

In brief, a civil infraction or a ticket would be issued to a person whose residence is used for an underage gathering involving the consumption of alcohol, regardless of whether or not the responsible person permitted such activity. Those cited would be fined $250 for the first offense.

A civil infraction can be characterized as more serious as a speeding ticket but less serious than a DUI. There are no criminal charges associated with a civil infraction.

While the amount of the fine might seem paltry, the city is limited in what they can charge.

The fine of $250 is the limit set by state law for these type of citations, city attorney Katie Knight said.

“If we want to charge anymore, the state RCW (law) would need to be changed by the state Legislature.”

Underage drinking on Mercer Island has continued unabated. Incidents of parents hosting these parties seem to be on the rise. The staff at Mercer Island Youth & Family Services has urged the Council to find new ways to stop teen drinking, and in particular, drinking at Island homes where a parent is present.

Youth & Family Services Manager Derek Franklin said YFS has been aware of the use of penalties against those who furnish alcohol for some time and had previously brought it to the City Council. The Council was spurred to action when an Island citizen spoke to a Councilmember about the idea.

The ordinance has many facets, Franklin explained, one of which is the employment of the simple means of deterrent.

Many agencies have come together to support this kind of law, Franklin said.

“The police, the state Liquor Control Board, the attorney’s office are all on the same page.”

Mercer Island is not the first entity to try this option to work against teen drinking.

The use of fines to deter adults from furnishing alcohol to minors is becoming the law de jour for cities across the nation.

Beyond the state laws that make it illegal for a person to permit underage youth to drink on premises under their control, cities do have the authority to impose their own penalties. Over just the past few weeks, several news reports covered these efforts.

In California, television station KTLA reported just last Friday that the Irvine, Calif., City Council unanimously approved an ordinance this week that fines party hosts who serve alcohol to minors.

Similar to the proposal here, the ordinance targets “social hosts,” defined as a “responsible person who makes alcohol available and/or permits the consumption of alcohol by an underage person at a gathering or event held on private property,” according to a city of Irvine staff report.

First-time offenders can be fined up to $750. A second offense within 12 months can result in a $1,500 fine and up to $3,000 for future offenses, according to a newspaper report.

The City of Irvine law is just one of several that exist throughout the state.

In Oklahoma, a new law went into effect just last week. It’s named after 16-year-old Cody Greenhaw, who died seven years ago after overdosing on drugs and alcohol at a party held by another teen’s parents. The new law  means that adults will face harsher penalties for hosting a party where minors consume drugs or alcohol, even if they’re the minor’s parents.

The first offense is a $500 fine. The second carries a $1,000 fine. A third offense becomes a felony and carries a $2,500 fine.

If a young person is seriously injured or dies, the penalty may mean the responsible party could serve up to five years in prison.

The state of Maryland has doubled the fine for adults who allow or enable teen drinking, from $500 to $1,000.

Other efforts aimed at adults are underway to expand efforts to stem illegal drinking and its potential to cause harm.

In New Jersey, state and local officials have also begun to target adults who might purchase alcohol legally and provide it to minors in their efforts to curb underage drinking. Stickers warning about the penalties for furnishing alcohol to minors were placed on all multi-packs of beer and wine coolers.

In Washington, D.C., the Regional Alcohol Program, which works to combat drunk driving, says parents who allow kids to leave while intoxicated could be culpable for whatever happens after the party’s over.

They may be responsible for injuries, they could be responsible for property damage, and they could be responsible for wrongful death.

Do you agree with the proposed city ordinance that would fine parents for hosting underage drinking? Vote in our poll.

Editor’s note

The second reading of the underage drinking ordinance by the Mercer Island City Council at its regular meeting, Nov. 21, has been rescheduled for Dec. 5. For more, go to www.mercergov.org.


 

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