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Council Considers California-Style Social Host Underage Drinking Fines Tonight

The Mercer Island City Council is weighing legal options to prevent underage drinking in the community, including a fine of up to $250 issued to the property owner for each infraction.

(Ed Note: For purposes of full disclosure, Mercer Island Patch editor is currently a member of the Communities That Care Coalition member.)

The  will consider tonight (Sept. 19) whether to approve the drafting of an ordinance that could levy civil fines on adults responsible for premises where underage alcohol consumption has occurred, even if the drinking occurred without their knowledge.

The ordinance would be intended to fill a hole in state law, which punishes adults who knowingly permit drinking on their premises by individuals less than 21 years of age, but gives them an "out" if they claim ignorance.

In a Sept. 19 memo to the council from City Attorney Katie Knight, a flat civil penalty of $250 is recommended for violations of the new local ordinance, if it is ultimately adopted, but with a clear avenue of defense if there's evidence of upfront prevention efforts by parents. Knight also suggests that the conceived measure be tailored to gatherings of four or more where at "at least one underage person possesses, consumes or exhibits the effects" of drinking alcoholic beverages. Another recommendation is that it pinpoint drinkers 18 and younger to keep the focus on the preventive role of parents. This could help avoid complications from holding landlords or co-tenants responsible for underage drinking by 19- and 20-year-olds (click here to see the city attorney's memo).

In the last decade, the affluent community of Mercer Island has been rocked by a teenage drinking problem. In response the city launched the Communities That Care Coalition (CTC) project to raise awareness and provide prevention resources to parents and students.

One key step was commissioning a localized study by Columbia University psychologist Suniya S. Luthar, who helped to energize the conversation when she presented her findings in 2007, as reported by the Seattle Times.

In support of civil penalties against adults for covert underage drinking on their premises,  manager Derek Franklin — who directs the CTC project — also sent a memo to the council, (click here to see the memo) which accompanies Knight's in the Monday Sept. 19 meeting packet.

Franklin noted that though the rate is at a 10-year-low, 44 percent of Mercer Island 12th graders still report drinking in the last 30 days and that underage drinking is linked to "increased rates of violence, property damage, sexual assault, alcohol poisoning, impaired driving and death."

Mercer Island Patch reported in July that the 2010 Mercer Island Healthy Communities Survey showed a significant decline in the rate of underage alcohol use in 10th and 12th graders. Underage drinking amongst 8th graders, however, showed a significant increase (click here for that story, and click here for the survey).

Franklin asserts that a so-called "social host ordinance" such as that proposed for Mercer Island is a smart move because it effectively targets house parties where most binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row) occurs. Other premises could also be covered by the ordinance, such as vehicles and hosted outdoor spaces. There's anecdotal evidence that social host ordinances have been successful in other locales such as Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Tucson, Franklin stated.

More than nine of ten Mercer Island households of public middle and high school students report that they already don't allow underage drinking, according to a 2009 survey, and the ordinance "can reinforce the existing majority culture of responsible hosting on Mercer Island," Franklin added.

The Council Monday could spell out what it wants to see in a social host ordinance and direct city staff to draft one for first reading at an upcoming meeting; or it could choose to end any further consideration of the matter.

Matt Rosenberg is founder and editor of Public Data Ferret, a project of the non-profit Public Eye Northwest

Tom Alciere September 19, 2011 at 10:18 PM
What are the outvoted discrimination victims supposed to do, build a time machine so they can obey a law against being under 21? Clone themselves so they can be more numerous on election day? Give up their right to drink alcoholic beverages, a right of inestimable value to them and formidable to tyrants only, an inherent natural right which no government can justly infringe? They certainly cannot get anywhere trying to reason with the crazy bigots who hate them. Just remember, the only reason the cops get away with enforcing alcohol laws is because the victims are not yet ready, willing, and able to fight off the cops. Don't push your luck.
Lisa Belden September 20, 2011 at 12:28 AM
The right idea is Safe Rides ----- to encourage persons under the age of 21 (and over the age of 21) to get home safely and be responsible about drinking and driving. The wrong idea is to pass a law allowing a police department (MIPD) that doesn't have enough to do (since we are a peaceful, educated, responsible community), to focus their police efforts on our younger population, to interfere with parenting (unless abusive), or to intrude into private homes, clubs, parties and premises. The wrong idea is to give a lazy or energetic prosecutor or police, a ridiculously easy standard of proof and/or presumed guilt as an "enforcement tool", as advocated by current City Attorney Katie Knight. She is way off-base, as the recommended ordinance. There is a very good reason why city/county/state/federal prosecutors have a high standard of proof to bear, and why police are prohibited from entering private premises ---- to prevent their abuse of citizens and the community. We don't want to live in fear of police entering private premises because police think there are people there who look under 21 (or 18 for that matter). My daughter is 24 and looks under 18. I don't want police entering and carding her in my home. Parenting during middle school and high school can be a challenge, but that is no reason for a community (or its City Attorney) to get weird about it. The existing state statute is sufficient. City staff's requested ordinance should be denied.
Lisa Belden September 20, 2011 at 07:26 PM
California does not have a state statute on underage drinking like Washington does. Washington's statute is one of the strictest in the USA. Four California college cities with lots of off-campus housing passed civil fine ordinances because of the lack of a state statute there. We don't have that issue here. We don't need both a strict state statute and a civil fine ordinance with confusing standards and presumed guilt of parents if police see 4 people at the house/premises that they think look under 19 (or 21) and think someone is drinking a beer or has access to alcohol. The council's stated aim of the new ordinance is to end the large high school parties in island homes where consultants say binge drinking is going on. If that is the case, why is the council setting the number of people as low as four to trigger police action? No one on the city council asked how the ordinance would be handled by the police....what the police are allowed or not allowed to do under the ordinance. No one asked about insurance and liability impacts. Don't get me wrong. I was a very strict parent in terms of zero tolerance of underage drinking when my kids were under 21. But the proposed ordinance would make benign gatherings of 4 persons who look to police to be under 19 (or 21) a focus of police action with guilt presumed in terms of the homeowner (parents) or renter. With no need to prove guilt, the ordinance will lead to pretext for police entry and insurance and liability impacts.
Alana Morris October 05, 2011 at 12:53 AM
Many parents on Mercer Island leave their kids alone for days and weeks while on business or vacation. This ordinance will hopefully remind them that supervision of some kind needs to happen during this time because of the potential problems. The Police are not going to be out looking to assign this law. IF they are called to a home and Minors are in Possession, they will process according to the law. NOW, they will also be able to seek out the owner of the home, and fine them for not protecting the minors according to the law. It is about accountability and not turning a blind eye. It hopefully will also help parents enforce the rules with their teenagers so teens don't have a party while they are gone.

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