BY JOHN HOLLER
Underage drinking is one of the most dangerous problems facing teenagers, but, thanks to loopholes in the law, it technically is not illegal for someone to host underage drinkers between the ages 18-20 provided the host of the party didn’t supply the alcohol for those minors. At the meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly laid out a plan to close those legal loopholes by installing a social host ordinance.
To date, 19 counties in the state have already adopted such an ordinance to combat the issue of underage binge drinking, which has resulted in numerous deaths and injuries and Kelly said Wright County has the same issues and the need to provide penalties for those who host such parties to be held accountable.
"In Minnesota it is unlawful for anyone under the age of 21 to consume alcohol, Kelly said. "It is bad public policy that allows individuals the ability to aid and condone such behavior by allowing/encouraging an environment for it to happen. We all know that underage drinking parties are taking place within our neighborhoods and communities. A social host ordinance makes it unlawful to provide an environment where underage drinking takes place, regardless of who provided the alcohol. Enacting an ordinance is in the interest of public health and public safety."
A social host ordinance would make it illegal to host/allow a gathering of three or more people on private or public property where the host knows or reasonably should know that minors will consume alcohol and the host does not take reasonable steps to stop it. Further, a "knowing" host does not have to be present to be criminally responsible. As things currently stand, if someone hosts a drinker under the age of 18 or supplies the alcohol in question, he or she can be held accountable. But, there is no penalty for hosting persons between 18-20 if it can’t be proved that the host purchased the liquor involved.
Kelly said the ordinance would target hosts of parties, not unknowing property owners. For example, a farm owner wouldn’t be accountable for unknown teens "partying on his back 40," Kelly said. Neither would parents who are out of town and don’t know their kids are throwing a party. Neither would landlords whose tenants throw underage drinking parties.
"Common sense should dictate prosecution and enforcement," Kelly said. "We all know there are blatant violations taking place where someone is ‘knowingly and willingly’ hosting a gathering where minor consumption is taking place and they have no desire to stop it. In fact, they encourage minor consumption by knowingly allowing an environment for it to happen. With all the negative consequences that could result from underage parties, we should not ‘knowingly’ allow that to happen. We need an ordinance."
Support for the ordinance has come from the state office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Wright County Sheriff’s Department, the police chiefs of Annandale, Buffalo and Howard Lake, Wright County Safe Schools, the Wright County Human Services/Public Health Departments, the Wright County Court Services Department and Wright County Safe Communities.
The board unanimously approved holding a public hearing at 9:30 a.m. at the Aug. 28 county board meeting to consider adopting the social host ordinance.