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January 9, 2014

Bill targets parents who allow underage drinking

INDIANAPOLIS — Permissive parents who allow underage drinking in their homes would face arrest and prosecution under a proposed “social host” liability law.

Adults who allow minors to drink on property they own, rent or control would face jail time and fines in a bill filed by state Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon.

The proposed legislation mirrors the so-called “social host” liability laws in at least 28 other states and goes beyond holding parents responsible for just providing alcohol to teens. The law would penalize adults for condoning teen drinking, even if those adults didn’t buy or supply the booze.

Miller said the law, if passed, won’t stop underage drinking, but it will give law enforcement a tool to prosecute parents and other adults who make it easy for teenagers to drink illegally.

“More importantly, it would send a strong message to teens as well as adults that irresponsible alcohol use should be discouraged,” Miller said.

Some lawmakers have dubbed the legislation, filed as Senate Bill 28, “the Jack Trudeau bill.” Trudeau, a former Indianapolis Colts quarterback, was arrested in 2007 for allowing underage drinking at his Boone County home during a high school graduation party for his daughter.

Trudeau later admitted to the infraction of inducing a minor to possess alcohol. But a prosecutor dropped criminal charges — including contributing to the delinquency of a minor — after Trudeau denied furnishing alcohol to the 13 teenagers who were also arrested at the party.

David Powell, head of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said “social host” laws are deterrents. “It will force parents who allow groups of teenagers in their homes to be more pro-active about preventing drinking,” Powell said. “They’ll have a stake in the game.”

Miller’s bill makes it a class-B misdemeanor — carrying up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine — to “recklessly, knowingly, or intentionally” provide the use of property for the purpose of allowing a minor to consume alcohol. A repeat offense jumps to a class-A misdemeanor, with up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The charge could be upgraded to a felony, with up to  two years in prison, if a minor’s drinking leads to serious injury or death.

A similar measure has been floated previously but didn’t get much attention. This year the bill has the support of a key legislative gatekeeper, Republican state Sen. Mike Young, an Indianapolis lawyer who chairs the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee.

“As a parent, I’d be upset to hear that other parents were letting that go on and being a part of it,” Young said. “This law would cover not just parents, but any adult who allows it to happen.”

The bill also has strong support from the Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking.

Coalition director Lisa Hutcheson said the law might change cultural attitudes toward drinking — especially excessive drinking. A recent study found nearly one-quarter of Indiana teenagers admit to binge drinking — defined as having five or more drinks in a row — while almost one-third of adults admit to regular binge drinking.

Hutcheson rejects the argument that it’s better to have teenagers consume alcohol within the confines of a home, where they can be monitored, rather than let them drink unsupervised. She said it’s unrealistic for adults to think they can monitor every teenager at a party, and it also sends the wrong message.

“I always say to say to parents, ‘Would you teach your kid how to smoke crack or rob a bank?’” she said. “You’re telling them it’s OK to break the law as long as you’re supervising them.”

If the law passes, Indiana would join a growing number of states with “social host” laws intended to discourage adults from condoning underage drinking.

In 2000, Massachusetts expanded a law that forbids adults from providing alcohol to underage drinkers, to include adults who “allowed” the drinking to occur. It came after an 18-year-old teenager drove home drunk from a graduation party hosted by a fellow graduate’s parent who denied furnishing the alcohol. The teen crashed his car into a telephone pole and died.

A similar law went into effect last year in Illinois.

But social host measures also face some pushback. The legislature in South Dakota stalled a social host bill from getting out of committee last year. Last month, elected officials in Orange County, Calif., rejected a social host liability ordinance. In both cases, officials said there were enough restrictions on underage drinking and that such measures could have unintended consequences of pushing young drinkers outside of homes.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company.  She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

 

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