Time for Wright County to pass a social host ordinance

By Tom Kelly
Wright County Attorney

The time has come to pass a social host ordinance for Wright County. I am proposing one to the Wright County Board of Commissioners. In Minnesota it is unlawful for anyone under the age of 21 to consume alcohol. It is bad public policy that gives individuals the ability to aid and condone such behavior by allowing 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 would make it unlawful to provide an environment where underage drinking takes place, regardless of who provides the alcohol. Enacting an ordinance is in the interest of public health and safety.
An ordinance would make it illegal to 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 but the host does not take reasonable steps to stop it. Further, a “knowing” host does not have to be present to be criminally responsible. Violation of the ordinance would be a misdemeanor.
The hope is that by imposing criminal responsibility on hosts, the ordinance will deter and reduce the number of underage drinking parties. Other jurisdictions with social host ordinances have found such success. A total of 83 cities and 19 counties in Minnesota have passed a social host ordinance since 2007.
Underage drinking poses important public health and safety risks. This should be of concern to professionals, policymakers, parents and others who are trying to reduce underage alcohol use. Underage drinking is rampant and most kids think it is their rite of passage. The culture today is beer bongs, beer pong, “quarters” and other drinking games. Unfortunately, it appears the culture now is for kids to drink as fast as they can and as much as they can. The alcohol content we are seeing is extremely high. Binge drinking is killing people. People are walking into traffic and wandering into rivers. Underage drinking could lead to alcohol poisoning, increased injuries, sexual assaults, lowered performance at school or work, DWIs, license revocations and criminal vehicular operations resulting in injuries or death.
At the present time, if someone hosted an underage drinking party and some individuals present were under 18, we could bring a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Also, if someone hosted an underage drinking party and they provided the alcohol and we could prove it, we could charge procuring alcohol for a minor. However, at the present time, it is perfectly legal for someone to “knowingly” host an underage drinking party for individuals between 18 and 20, as long as the host did not provide the alcohol. A social host ordinance would address the last scenario and give us the necessary tool to hold a “knowing host” responsible for an underage party.
Why the need for an ordinance? Proving who provided alcohol to minors is very difficult. Also, issuing minor consumption tickets can be viewed by some youth as a “badge of honor” or no big deal. Further, as noted, currently we can’t charge a “knowing” host who provides an environment for underage drinking, as long as the host did not provide the alcohol. An ordinance would simply give us another tool in the box to help combat underage drinking by not allowing an environment where it could take place.
There would be no liability under the ordinance for the following: 1) Mere ownership of property does not make someone liable. There is a burden of proof to show an owner knew or reasonably should have known of the minor consumption taking place on their property while taking no reasonable steps to prevent it. 2) Parents who are away and have no knowledge that their kids are throwing a party would be exempt. 3) Landlords who have no knowledge of an underage party would be exempt. 4) Farmers who have no knowledge of an underage party taking place on their property would be exempt. 5) The ordinance does not apply to any conduct involving a parent and only their own children in the parent’s home.
Common sense should dictate prosecution and enforcement. We all know there are blatant violations taking place where someone is “knowingly and willingly” hosting a gathering, encouraging minor consumption and having no desire to stop it. With all the negative results to come from underage parties, we should not “knowingly” allow that to happen. We need an ordinance. I ask for your support.
The Wright County Board of Commissioners has set a public hearing for public comment 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the Wright County Government Center in Buffalo. Call me with any questions, thoughts or concerns at 763-682-7348. Also, you may view the proposed ordinance at our website under “Announcements” at www.co.wright.mn.us./dept/atty.