Underage Drinking Liability: Parents Beware

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Photo courtesy paradigmmalibu.com
Photo courtesy paradigmmalibu.com

Dear Whit,

I am an avid reader of your advice column.  Recently, I was impressed with your bullying reply especially from the standpoint of legalities.

My question is:  Can you address the adult legal responsibilities where teenage drinking is concerned?  I think there are a lot of urban legends out there and while many parents do not condone teenage drinking in their homes, sometimes it happens.  Also if an 18-20 year old is caught drinking by the police, are the ramifications different than if they were 17 and younger?

Thanks very much for your time.

Mom of Teenagers

Dear Mom:

From what I have read, heard, and seen, parents can be held liable for underage drinking (whatever their state law determines it is) in their homes no matter what the circumstances. To illustrate, here is an account that I found from several reliable sources:

Parents in some states can be liable even if they were not aware that drinking was going on in their home, according to the Associated Press. One Stanford University professor was arrested in November after his 17-year-old son had a party in the basement. The professor, Bill Burnett, said he had forbidden alcohol at the party and had twice checked on the teens. He spent one night in jail and was booked on 44 counts of suspicion of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Each count carries up to a $2,500 fine and almost a year in jail.

Your letter serves as a public-service message to parents. Here is the law in Maryland boiled down:

Social-host liability is a statute that assigns criminal or civil liability to adults serving alcohol to minors in a non-commercial setting. If anyone under 21 years of age consumes or possesses alcohol while in an adult’s home or surrounding area, the adult(s) may be assigned responsibility if damage or injury results. In the State of Maryland, this statute not only applies to minors, but extends to the intoxication of adult guests as well (that’s a whole ‘nother issue, as the saying goes).

If you serve alcohol or turn a blind eye to teens (or anyone) drinking on your property and someone is injured or killed as a direct result of your lack of supervision, you could potentially face legal and financial liability and, in more serious cases, criminal negligence.

My advice to you and to all parents of teenage/underage children is to understand that you will be subject to fines and jail time if anyone underage drinks in your domicile. Then, make sure that your children not only hear it from you but see it in black and white legalese so that no misunderstanding exists between you and your children.

One realistic way to avoid liability is to have a party at some location other than your home, such as a restaurant or event facility, where the liability can be transferred to a commercial entity that knows how to protect itself legally.

Sometimes you just have to be implacable. If your kids want to have a party at your house, you can kiddingly say, “I don’t want to be seen led away in shackles on WBAL tonight.” After acknowledging to  your kids that even though you know that nobody under 50 watches local TV anymore, tell them you still don’t want to make the evening news. When it comes to your underaged kids drinking in your home, JUST SAY NO—I’m not kidding and neither should you.

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