Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

If the police chief doesn’t know what to do…

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…how is the average parent expected to do the right thing?

The story of Providence Police Chief Col. Dean Esserman and the graduation party he supervised this weekend is — yet again — a cautionary tale for parents and legislators. When a law is so poorly conceived and written that no one knows how to obey it, not even members of the police force, who is the greater threat to public safety: the often well-meaning but hapless person charged or the lawmakers who championed and passed it?

The hubbub started when Dan McGowan, intrepid investigative news reporter for Providence, Rhode Island’s GoLocalProv News, reported on an underage drinking party Friday night at the home of Providence Police Chief Col. Dean Esserman. McGowan or another GoLocalProv News reporter staked out Esserman’s house during the party and interviewed guests as they left. Who tipped GoLocalProv and why remains a mystery.However, based on the community comments on the article, Esserman appears to be a polarizing figure in the community.

Local television station WPRI Eyewitness News swiftly picked up the story and got Esserman’s statement and the statement of a Providence councilman calling for Esserman’s suspension while the situation is investigated. Not to be left behind in the essential art of finger-pointing without evidence or objective data, the other council members hurried to make their pronouncements. Even the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Chapter of MADD, Gabrielle Abbate, wishes to play Nancy Drew, telling the GoLocalProv News reporter she wants to “look into additional details regarding possible impaired driving incidents” before making a judgment. I didn’t realize MADD gave its executive directors detective’s shields.

Rhode Island’s Social Host Law was passed in 2006. It penalizes any “person” who provides or permits underage alcohol consumption on their property. Its standard of proof is defined as “any form of conduct, that would cause a reasonable person to believe that permission or approval has been given.”

Considering the council members’ and the public’s comments, I’m left wondering where we might find a reasonable person in Providence.

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To learn more:

Exclusive: Underage Drinkers at Chief Esserman’s Home – June 11, 2011 – GoLocalProv News – Byline: Dan McGowan

Underage drinking at chief’s home – June 11, 2011 –  WPRI Providence, RI – Byline: Ted Nesi

Esserman Fallout: Providence Council Reacts – June 13, 2011 – GoLocalProv News – Byline: Dan McGowan

2 comments on “If the police chief doesn’t know what to do…

  1. Anonymous
    June 15, 2011

    Stupid comment regarding the “executive director’s detective’s shield”…remind me why she would be playing Nancy Drew???

    You contradict yourself here in this short blog because you start off by stating that it is difficult for the laws to be enforced because of the way they are written…If you followed or knew anything about MADD RI or Gabrielle Abbate, she is not a HUGE fan of most of the legislators in the state of RI because of the laws that they don’t get passed and when most of the laws are passed they aren’t written the way they should be. Most of the legislators in office are idiots and Murphy is by far the biggest…his income is based on defending all the drunk drivers, so of course he would be against making these laws legible….

    Get your facts straight before you make assumptions…

    • H. M. Epstein
      June 15, 2011

      For Anonymous, a couple of points. First, please read the home page of this site. We have never said it’s difficult to enforce the Social Host Law. Our point of view is that most Social Host Laws are too easy to inadvertently break, therefore many innocent, well-meaning people of all ages and educational backgrounds run afoul of the letter of the law, even when it’s obvious they haven’t actually done anything wrong. Of course, I make no such assumption in any direction about Police Chief Esserman’s innocence or guilt. That’s not my role as a journalist. However, MADD Rhode Island’s Gabrielle Abbate chose to make a statement to a reporter about looking into Esserman’s daughter’s party and the subsequent events before making a judgment. Since she is a community leader and not an investigative reporter, jury member or a detective, that’s not her place to do so. When it comes to underage drinking and the legal, moral and technical issues surrounding Social Host Laws, most people seem to judge too quickly. Look at what Providence’s council members chose to say. I suggest we apply your advice to everyone in Providence: Get your facts straight before you make assumptions. Even you, Mr. Anonymous.

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