Little decisions can lead to big consequences, especially when alcohol and teens are involved. A simple barbecue one October night in 2011 led to four teens getting seriously injured, one teen losing his driver’s license for the rest of his life, the arrest and public humiliation of a school board member, and later today, the possibility of a Rhode Island state law being declared unconstitutional. Rhode Island Fourth District Court Judge Mary McCaffrey has scheduled and postponed her decision three times already, the most recent delay on Friday, January 11, 2013. The new hearing will take place at 2 p.m. today.
Criminal defense attorney Robert Mann had filed a memorandum of law challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Social Host Law’s (R.I.G.L 3-8-11.1) on October 15, 2012. Mann represents former Chariho School Committee member Terri Serra, who threw a party for several families. Later that night, after she had said goodnight to her guests and gone to sleep, noise from her yard led her to discover teens drinking on her property. She kicked them out. They drove off in several cars and one car crashed into a tree severely injuring the occupants ages 15 and 16, including one teen who was in a coma for weeks before transferring to a rehabilitation center. The driver, 17-year-old Lyle Topa, in a headline-grabbing decision, lost his license forever last February.
Serra was charged as a social host under the last clause of the state’s law: “permit the consumption of alcohol by underaged persons in his or her residence or on his or her real property.” While Social Host Laws are spreading across the country in the form of state laws and local ordinances, there have been several constitutional challenges due to the broadness of the language and the lack of evidence required. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the state’s Social Host Law in 2002 because it was considered “unconstitutionally vague.” There is a new version in effect, now. In February 2012, Massachusetts’ Supreme Court rejected a clause of that state’s civil law that applied to social hosts under the age of 21.
Is Serra guilty as a social host if she didn’t knowingly supply or furnish the teens with alcohol? Is she guilty if she was unaware the teens stayed after the party ended? How can the prosecutor prove whether Serra knew they were there and did nothing, or not? Once Serra learned the teens were drinking on her property, what are her options, responsibilities and rights under the law? There have been successful challenges to Social Host laws and ordinances when the answers to these questions are unclear or unavailable.
The issue of constitutionality would be significant news to dozens of other Rhode Island residents, a few of whom made national headlines when they were called social hosts, including Providence’s former Police Chief Col. Dean Esserman, who quit to protect his family from the legal ramifications of his daughter’s party, and Caleb Chafee, the 18-year-old son of Rhode Island’s Governor, who pleaded “no contest” to the charge of violating the Social Host Law and was required to pay a fine and complete 20 hours of community service.
Serra was also charged and found “not guilty” of “failure to render aid” at the scene of the crash. While Serra did not call 911 when she encountered the accident, she did go to a nearby house to get help. By the time she returned to the scene, someone else had already called 911.