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State Law

  Justice Is Unequal for Parents Who Host Teen Drinking Parties

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007; A01

When police showed up recently at a Walt Whitman High School graduation party, three young people were drinking in a vehicle parked outside the Bethesda home. Then three more teenagers walked up with a six-pack in a bag. While the police were dealing with them, the mother came outside, saw the officers and ran back in.

Montgomery County police wrote dozens of citations against the minors who were found to have been drinking at the party. The party-hosting parents were given two civil citations each, carrying fines of up to $1,500 per infraction.

The outcome for the Bethesda parents was considerably less severe than for a Charlottesville area mother and stepfather who recently began serving 27-month jail sentences for hosting an underage drinking party. In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.

The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties. Even at a time of strong concern about youth drinking and drunken driving, police and prosecutors say parents in the Washington region are rarely held responsible -- criminally or civilly -- for allowing teenagers to gather at their homes and consume alcohol. That's in large part because it's difficult to prove that the adults provided alcohol or condoned its use.

The issue is becoming more urgent, police say, as more parents, fearing their teenagers will drink anyway, allow alcohol at home to keep the youths off the roads and out of trouble. In both the Bethesda and Charlottesville area cases, the parents had collected teens' car keys to ensure that nobody drove after drinking. The Virginia mother acknowledged buying the alcohol for the party.

"They were fully aware of the party and knew what was going on," Sgt. Tim Kwaloff, head of the Montgomery police Alcohol Enforcement Unit, said of the Bethesda parents. "More and more parents think they'd rather have their kids drinking at home than not know where they are."

Stacy Saetta of the Center for the Study of Law and Enforcement Policy, a California-based research center studying alcohol policy, said the parties are getting larger and can involve "hundreds of kids in this new Internet era of text-messaging, MySpacing and instant communication."

"Some of these parents are hosting these parties out of the goodness of their hearts," Saetta said. "They think they're doing the best thing [by] keeping them at home. But there's just too many dangers present when you get a bunch of young people together with money, with alcohol and with cars."

The recent season of proms, graduations and beach weeks -- all rites of passage in American culture -- took place amid an increase in binge drinking by teens and a rise in the number of young people killed by drunken-driving crashes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And research shows that the younger the minor, the more likely the alcohol was provided by an adult.

Law enforcement authorities see no easy solution to the problem.

Raymond F. Morrogh, deputy commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax County, said charging parents is difficult because authorities are coming into "contact with people not usually involved in criminal activities."

"Also, you've got to have hard proof," he said. "We deal in evidence."

Legal experts on underage drinking say civil penalties are more effective than criminal penalties. Civil ordinances, which are handled administratively, allow police to respond to complaints, break up the ever-larger drinking parties and hit parents quickly in their pocketbooks.

"We don't believe that locking up mom and dad is the answer," said Michelle Blackstone of the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center, based in Calverton. "Research suggests that going after the purse strings is much more effective."

Olga Teape has been unable to hold responsible those she blames for the drunken-driving crash that killed her 17-year-old son: the Fairfax couple who, the teen's friends said, threw an underage party with alcohol, charged $5 admission and then ordered young people to leave when they were drunk.

The Annandale parents, who deny the allegations, were not charged with a crime. Teape filed a civil suit against them, but the courts ruled that under state law a social host who contributes to a guest's inebriation cannot be held liable for injuries caused by the guest's acts, including drunken driving. (That is also the case in Maryland. The District has "dram shop liability," under which an establishment can be held responsible for a patron's actions, but does not recognize social host liability.)

"I'm speechless. I'm dumbfounded," Teape, 45, said of the jail time imposed in the Charlottesville area case, in which no one was injured. "It doesn't make any sense. Aren't we in the same state?"

Another local case illustrates the difficulties of prosecution. Last year, a Fairfax man admitted that he bought beer for a 16-year-old girl who crashed a sport-utility vehicle and died. The girl, Lauren G. Sausville, died in December 2004, and police worked intently to learn who had bought the alcohol.

After the man was arrested in Tennessee, he spent about 17 days in jail there while he was held on Fairfax warrants charging him with buying alcohol for an underage person and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The man pleaded guilty to the three charges in exchange for an agreement that Fairfax prosecutors not seek jail time. A county prosecutor said witnesses could not definitively say how much beer the man bought, which could have been a problem if the case had gone to trial.

Lt. Kim Babcock, head of the Arlington County Police School Resources Unit, which deals with underage drinking in the county, said it is hard to get the evidence needed to prosecute parents.

"You have to have probable cause that they supplied the alcohol or knew it was going on and did nothing," Babcock said.

He said there is often "no way to show that they had knowledge. The kids are in the basement; the parents are in their bedroom. The parents might have known that kids were over, but they didn't realize what they were doing. That happens a lot." He said teens also often have parties when their parents aren't home.

In most area jurisdictions, minors are allowed to drink in the presence of their parents. A Virginia law passed last year allows it. In Maryland, minors can consume alcohol in the presence of their parents at home. In the District, there is no legal exemption for parents to give alcohol to their children.

What many parents strongly object to is the notion that other adults can make that choice for children who are not theirs.

"It is a totally unacceptable decision to make for other people's kids," said Chris Konschak, executive director of the Virginia chapter of MADD.

Kwaloff, the Montgomery police sergeant, said parents don't realize how quickly a party can spiral out of control, even with supervision.

At the Bethesda graduation party, the parents had labeled each set of car keys with the driver's name and planned to keep the teens overnight, Kwaloff said. He wondered, however, how 100 teenagers could have all spent the night in the basement.

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