Letter | Underage drinking ordinance too broad
November 29, 2011 · Updated 9:37 AM
I am deeply concerned about the breadth of the proposed city ordinance that would penalize parents who provide alcohol to underaged youth. Don’t get me wrong; if you are an adult buying alcohol and/or letting kids drink in your home, you should be penalized. The problem is with how broadly the proposed ordinance is written. If your article in the Reporter is accurate, parents face both the monetary and infraction penalties even if they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent teenagers from drinking on their property.
My concern is that proponents of the ordinance are not explaining that this is a “strict liability” ordinance. They are garnering widespread support for it by touting it as an adults-who-provide-alcohol-and-permit-underage-drinking law. People need to know that strict liability means that if a kid parks on your street and has a beer while standing on your property at 1 a.m. when your kids are home and in bed (OK, well at least they are home and on Facebook), then you as a parent are legally liable under this proposed ordinance.
I’m tired of Island parents being labeled as parents who “host teen drinking parties.” I suspect that most of the adults who label us that way are parents who don’t have kids, or whose kids are over the age of 21. Or maybe they are parents of kids who drink at other people’s houses and they don’t know it. I know from personal knowledge that Mercer Island parents have an enormous amount of angst over this issue, and they do their best to prevent it. These efforts include talking with their kids, reminding them endlessly of the irreparable legal and social consequences of such conduct, strictly monitoring group get-togethers at their homes, handing out documents to their kids and their friends stating that underage drinking will not be allowed, providing incentives for not drinking, buying breathalyzers for personal use, threatening and following through with consequences, dropping by unannounced at houses where parties might be occurring, and pouring through the Revised Code of Washington with their kids to discuss adult liability for underage drinking. We’ve done all of those things, and more. And guess what? We’re still shocked when we occasionally find beer cans under the porch or in the yard on Sunday morning.
If parents think that the proposed ordinance would only apply to egregious situations where parents are hosting keggers for their kids, they are either naïve or ill-informed. A strict liability statute does not allow law enforcement officials the discretion to take into account parents’ motivations, sincerity or their diligent historical efforts to prevent underage drinking in their home. This ordinance needs to be rewritten to sanction parents and property owners when they participate in and permit underage drinking, not when it occurs despite the adults’ best efforts to prevent it.
Laurin S. Schweet