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New Connecticut Statute Addressing Underage Drinking

 

Confronting the risks and hazards of drinking by minors is sufficiently complicated.  State statutes that contain loopholes which one could conclude actually sanctions the practice makes that task only more difficult.

 

Prior to October 1, 2006, the state’s police departments encountered great difficulty confronting underage drinking when such activity occurred on private property, whether in a private residence or a field owned by an individual.  This resulted from the fact that use or possession of alcoholic beverages by persons under age 21 was only illegal if on public property or in commercial establishments.  The absence of a prohibition on private property emboldened many teens to conclude that drinking in homes could take place with little risk of intervention by law enforcement officials.  Additionally, many adults concluded that adult supervised house parties were a controlled way for their children and their children’s friends to gain experience with alcohol in a controlled environment. 

 

Many fallacies exist with this latter conclusion.  First, the idea of underage drinking in a controlled environment is a contradiction.  Adult supervision of a teen drinking party can only be of limited effectiveness.  As the party progresses, any adult oversight of drinking activities is certain to diminish, if only because of the nature of the relationship of teens and a parent “cool” enough to allow such activities.  Additionally, regardless diligent the adult may be, teens are astute at bending the rules so that the opportunity for youthful recklessness that ends in tragedy always exists.  Finally, many parents would question whether an adult who sanctions such a party has adequate judgment to effectively monitor a group of underage drinkers.  

 

The most compelling argument against condoning such gatherings is that other people’s children are involved.  More likely that not, the vast majority of parents whose children participate in “controlled” house parties disapprove of the event.   Therefore, adults who sanction or sponsor “controlled” house parties are violating the rights of all other parents who rightfully expect other adults not to facilitate dangerous activities involving their children.  This essential right of all parents surely overrides the privacy rights of a homeowner to have a house party with minors drinking.

In the 2006 session, the Connecticut Legislature finally concluded that the statute need to be changed.  Overwhelming majorities (with unanimity in the State Senate) passed a law that makes possession of alcoholic beverages on private property by minors illegal.  More importantly the statute for the first time contains sanctions aimed at the social host, whether an adult or minor.  The statute applies to any person having possession of, or exercising dominion and control over, any dwelling unit or private property who knowingly permits any minor to possess alcoholic liquor in such dwelling unit or on such private property, or knows that a minor possesses alcoholic liquor in such dwelling unit on such private property and fails to make reasonable efforts to halt such possession.  Most significantly, the consequences under the statute are much harsher to the social host than for the minor caught in possession of alcoholic beverages.

For minors cited for possession, the first offense is an infraction, similar to a parking ticket.  Subsequent offenses carry a fine of not less than two hundred nor more than five hundred dollars.  Exemptions are included for minors over age eighteen who serve alcohol in connection with employment or a business, a minor who possesses alcoholic liquor on the order of a practicing physician, or a minor who possesses alcoholic liquor while accompanied by a parent, guardian or spouse of the minor who is twenty-one or older.  Additionally, possession of alcohol in connection with religious practices is exempted.

As for the social host, the sanctions are much more dramatic.  The first violation again is deemed to have committed an infraction.  For any subsequent offense, the social host can be fined not more than five hundred dollars and/or imprisoned for one year.

What can we anticipate resulting from the law change? 

The first effect should be in the ability of law enforcement officials to intervene when made aware of a house party where minors are drinking.  Since the first violation results in an infraction, knowledge of drinking by minors alone does not constitute probable cause for the police to enter a private residence.  Some other violation of law or known risk to health must be present to allow entry without invitation.  While this is similar to the situation confronted by police in municipalities with local ordinances addressing minors drinking on private property, police in general express satisfaction that the statute provides a uniform standard across the state to confront house parties.  How the statute enhances the police officer’s ability to intervene in practice remains to be seen.

A more significant effect to anticipate from the statute is community awareness of any intervention which may take place.  Under prior law, many municipalities with house party ordinances applied the sanctions against minors in possession, not the social host (as in West Hartford’s ordinance).  Therefore, any prior intervention largely had consequences for minors, most of whom were likely under age 18.  State privacy laws restrict public disclosure of minors in legal difficulty (a restriction that most agree is necessary to prevent long-term harm resulting from youthful indiscretions).  The result is that while interventions at house parties were occurring, they were outside of community awareness.

With sanctions applied to social hosts, many of those cited will likely be over 18 years of age.  Therefore, such police interventions can, and should be, in the public’s view.  Publicity of adults subjected to sanctions should act as a major deterrent to any adult who may still be considering a “controlled” party with underage drinking.

Stephen M. Guest

     
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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest