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City Council passes drinking ordinance

The City Council passed the underage drinking ordinance at their regular Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 5.

The measure, designed to combat adult-hosted drinking parties, passed six votes to one.

Councilmember Mike Grady, who wanted the ordinance to include underage people who are 20 or 21, voted no.

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 ordinance states. The ordinance is designed specifically to deter drinking by anyone under the age of 19 and excludes landlords from liability.

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.

The ordinance invokes strict liability if a party occurs at the home of an adult, or premises they control. The intent is to establish that a violation has occurred — similar to driving at a speed higher than the posted limit on an Island roadway. The officer in such a situation has the discretion as to whether a ticket should be written. A judge can listen to evidence that a person was not responsible for what happened and reduce the fine or dismiss the case.

“These are the types of decisions that our police officers make every day,” said Police Chief Ed Holmes. “They are trained to use their judgment and discretion to individual situations.”

Some community members were worried that adults could be cited, despite truly not knowing what had occurred. City Attorney Katie Knight said it is intended to target homeowners who host parties with underage drinking — not to ensnare homeowners who do not.

Councilmember Dan Grausz stated that the reason the Council decided to prepare the ordinance was to take action on a serious problem concerning teen drinking on the Island.

“The reason we are doing this is to provide our police and Youth & Family Services another tool to prevent what we know is a serious problem in our country and in our own community,” he said.

“This ordinance will allow us to ticket adults for not taking appropriate action to prevent teen drinking in their home or on their property,” he continued. “With strict liability, those persons cannot get out of those situations by saying, ‘I didn’t know.’”

A civil infraction can be characterized as more serious than 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 small, state law limits the amount.

 

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