Officials: Parents legally responsible for drinking parties
At the end of August, New Canaan Police charged 19-year-old Avery Underwood with two felonies after busting an underage drinking party at her Weed Street home. Police arrived at the house while teens fled the scene, and found more than 80 empty beer cans strewn about the property.
But while they were searching the home, they stumbled upon something they did not expect; Avery's mom, Lori Underwood, was holed up in a closet hiding from police.
"That is exactly the type of thing we don't want parents to be doing," New Canaan Police Sgt. Carol Ogrinc said. "Parents need to know the risks of hosting these parties, knowingly and unknowingly."
Lori Underwood, 47, was issued an infraction for failing to halt possession of alcohol by a minor.
According to Connecticut state law, a second offense dictates another fine, a year in prison, or both.
"On any given weekend there are a handful of parties," Ogrinc said.
More InformationAccording to the laws It is illegal to host (or be aware that your home is hosting) a party where minors are served alcohol. Penalty to hosting a party where minors get alcohol: First offense: An infraction fine between $74 - $136. Subsequent offenses: A misdemeanor with a fine no more than $500 or imprisonment no more than a year, or both. Penalty for a party on property when homeowner is away: Connecticut law states the teen or other person watching the house would be cited to hosting and all other criminal statutes. However, under other state statutes, the owner of the home is liable for injuries and other consequences regardless of their presence. They are also vulnerable to civil liability. It is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess alcohol publicly or privately. The penalty is a fine ranging from $74 to $136 on a first offense and between $200 and $500 on subsequent offenses. Police still need probable cause to enter private property. A noise complaint qualifies as probable cause. Misrepresenting age to purchase: Up to 30 days prison, and/or fine up to $50. Anyone giving or delivering liquor to a minor: Unclassified felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison, and/or up to $1,500. Source: Northeast Communities Against Substance Abuse and CT Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, 2011
"We can't always be at every single one to stop it, so we try our best to make sure parents and kids know the laws and consequences associated with it."
The laws are clear, Ogrinc said, but the problems that could arise from these drinking parties are not as obvious as some think.
"If parents provide liquor to a minor, then that is a definite. That's a felony. If they know alcohol is going to be there and allow it and fail to stop it, then that is another (problem)," Ogrinc said. "It's not criminal, but it's the social host law and they get a fine. At least it's something. Civilly is where they can really be held liable."
According to Ogrinc, the police tell teens if they start with a small gathering and it turns into a large-scale party, even if there's alcohol, they should call the police.
"The kids are put in a position at that point because the small gathering has gotten out of hand and they know they will have even more problems by telling the police," she said.
"They are still going to get in trouble for having the small party, but they are better off calling us because it's going to get out of hand. You can have things stolen from your house, fights can occur, other crimes could be committed in the house, including sexual assault," Ogrinc said. "And it has happened and we probably don't get many reports on it, but it happens a lot."
Frank McCoy, an attorney with McCoy and McCoy of Hartford, said parents need to pay more attention to what is happening in their own homes.
"You, as the owner of the house, have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to make sure there is no underage drinking. You can't just look the other way and say you didn't know," McCoy said. "You basically have to supervise so that there is no underage drinking, and if you find drinking, you must take reasonable steps to correct the situation."
According to experts, civil lawsuits are a gray area. If a teen gets hurt at a party, that teen's parents could bring a lawsuit against the hosts. State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, has been an opponent of substance abuse, especially when it comes to students. She believes that Connecticut's laws are appropriate, and understands most of the responsibility remains with the parents.
"As far as the parents playing a role, there are some parents that honestly believe that they are doing a service by letting kids drink at their house. They take away the keys and tell them to not leave the house and somehow they are going to be safe. That sends a bad message because that says it's acceptable," Boucher said. "I think people would agree that adults shouldn't be adding to the problem. As it is, kids do model parent behavior. When they embark in that direction they somehow think they are helping their kids or being cool. They are not there to be their child's peer. They are there to be the adult and to set the right roles."
Similar to McCoy, Boucher said parents must be more active because of the possibility of criminal and civil lawsuits. She said just because a parent takes away someone's keys it doesn't make them safer.
"We have students with alcohol poisoning all the time. Look, we all know kids are going to try things behind your back. I'm a parent and I know this as well. But you have to at least set a bar with certain guidelines to protect your children," Boucher said. "If that is not reason enough, then the law is also a pretty good deterrent. Too many busted parties on a property could affect your homeowner's insurance, not to mention the endless possibility of civil lawsuits if someone is hurt on your property. These are all things that need to be considered. If some parents aren't concerned with the well being of the kids then I suppose they should at least worry about themselves."