Friday, January 28, 2011

How the "social host" ordinance works in other cities

Posted By on Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 9:44 AM

City Councilman Dave Strohmaier's latest proposal is generating some thoughtful conversation about underage drinking, drunk driving and the limits of local government. His so-called "social host" ordinance, which basically holds the owner of a house or apartment accountable for minors in possession, sparked what Gwen Florio described as a "philosophical discussion" on the definitions of "knowledge" and "minor," and prompted Councilman Bob Jaffe to write at length on the subject in his weekly listserv.

"I can understand the basic premise that it is a crime to be an accomplice to someone who is committing a crime," wrote Jaffe. "Underage drinking is a crime. The person providing the space for this criminal activity to take place is in some ways responsible themselves for the crime. The problem comes in with how close you require the connection to be between the underage drinking and the person who controls the space."

Jaffe went on to write he has yet to hear "a really compelling argument for its necessity" and asked for some "proof" that it'd be effective. Well, considering similar ordinances are in effect across the country, we thought we'd look at how it's worked.

According to an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the biggest issue has been college parties. Off-campus students in St. Paul have started posting hastily written notes on the front door of their apartment telling minors to stay away. It's a "a legal hedge to avoid crossing the new ordinance," according to the article. Students are also deciding to host get-togethers sans kegs, preferring bottles and cans because then the party is harder to bust.

"Do I think it will stop anything? No," Ross Alberts, a 21-year-old St. Thomas senior, told the paper.

St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Schnell said the ordinance does help limit the number of soirees, but it's far from perfect.

"We will never arrest our way out of the problem of underage drinking," he said.

Meanwhile, students at UC-Santa Barbara are facing similar issues. The school paper makes an interesting point, however, about what the ordinance has done to student-neighborhood relations, especially in the festive Isla Vista area. The community promotes a "Just Call 911" campaign to encourage students to call the authorities if someone displays the signs of alcohol poisoning or drug overdose. That won't work with the social host ordinance.

Unfortunately, what the SHO would also likely do is drive a wedge between Isla Vista’s residents and its law enforcement and emergency personnel. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that the presence of an intoxicated minor at a party would discourage residents from contacting the proper authorities in the case of an emergency. The significant fines spelled out by the SHO represent a noteworthy hit to a typical college student’s finances and would likely make students increasingly fearful of the consequences local authorities will levy on them once they notify the authorities that a minor has been drinking at their residence.

The staff editorial went on to point out that other laws would already seem to cover the social host ordinance.

There are already a number of laws in place that punish and prevent underage and irresponsible drinking, such as Open Container, Driving Under the Influence and Minor in Possession citations. These laws constitute a generally accepted framework for what is permitted by people imbibing alcohol.

And the Santa Barbara Independent asked these questions:

Would the responsible party be the roommate who happened to be sitting next to the underage drinker when the police officers arrived? Would all the people who were of age in the household be fined? What if your roommate was in another room drinking and you weren’t even aware of it? And how could anyone determine whether you allowed the underage drinker to drink or not? It’s clear if you are standing at the keg pouring beer for underage drinkers, but in other cases the issue may be hard to determine.

Interestingly, most of the examples we found involve college students (and sometimes under tragic circumstances). As far as I know, UM and The Kaimin have yet to offer their opinions on Strohmaier's proposal.

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