What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws
You are a Social Host if you permit underage drinking in your residence or place of business. You don’t have to purchase, serve or provide the alcohol to underage drinkers. You just have to allow it to happen.
They’re a wide-ranging – and confusing – group of criminal and civil laws aimed at the people (the host) who control the location (house, apartment, business, fraternity house) where underage drinking has occurred. It’s a law targeting inaction or passivity. Don’t confuse it with giving teens alcohol. That’s called furnishing – meaning to literally provide, serve or purchase – alcohol for minors. Every state criminalizes furnishing teens with alcohol. Not every state considers being a Social Host a criminal act, or even a negligent one.
If police find teens drinking on your property, they can arrest or cite you with a criminal Social Host charge, most commonly a misdemeanor. If they believe any of the liquor came from your own cabinet, they can also add at least two more charges: “Endangering the welfare of a child” and “Unlawfully dealing with a child in the first degree”. Each count (meaning each teen who has been allowed to drink) can result in fees and/or jail time. Many ordinances now have sliding scales for fees; the cost goes up if you get charged again. Jail time can be up to a year.
Last Thanksgiving weekend, when Stanford University Engineering Professor Bill Burnett was charged with 44 counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (case still pending), the fines totaled $110 thousand even though he had communicated broadly before the party that alcohol wasn’t permitted.
Being convicted also means you can lose your parental rights, your children in a custody battle, even your job. If your work requires a license – i.e., if you’re a dentist, a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, a therapist or social worker – your license could be at risk. If you’re known in your community, expect to get publicly humiliated.
Since minors can be charged as Social Hosts, your teen can get suspended from school, the team or Honor Society or miss getting into a preferred college. S/he can lose a scholarship or a good job. All of these can happen without a conviction. If your teen gets convicted, s/he can get a permanent record that will affect future prospects.
Most importantly, if a teen gets injured or killed on your property or after leaving your home, or injures or kills someone else, you can face felony charges. That means that in some states, like Illinois, you can spend the next few years defending yourself against some serious charges, up to and including manslaughter.
States have two sets of laws, called codes; a criminal code and a civil code. The criminal code specifies the laws that police and state attorneys use to decide if you’ve broken the law. The civil code states what behavior exposes you to a lawsuit from an individual or group. Although the same behavior can result in both criminal and civil liability, different events trigger a criminal charge than ones that could end in a civil lawsuit.
Teens found drinking on your property lead to criminal charges, commonly misdemeanors or offenses. Criminal charges are pressed by the state, representing the people. See What happens if I get charged as a Social Host? for more details.
A civil lawsuit means an individual, or group, is suing you for money. A civil lawsuit can result from a teen getting injured or killed, injuring or killing someone else or causing property damage after drinking at your home. A lawyer usually files a civil action for a plaintiff. The plaintiff can be the teen, the person injured or owner of the damaged property. A lawsuit can result in hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars if you lose the case. And the cost is all yours; unlike coverage if someone slips on ice in your driveway, there’s no insurance product that covers you if you’re sued as a Social Host. Some states, like California, only have a civil code version of a Social Host Law.
Both criminal and civil liability cases can cost you an arm and a leg for attorney fees, months to years of your life, your reputation, your ability to sleep and your friendships.
Each state, county, city and community can have their own Social Host Laws or Ordinances. Sometimes they’re easy to identify because they’re titled “Social Host Law.” They can also be written as clauses or phrases within existing laws which makes them difficult to find.
The best of the Social Host Laws are straightforward and – for involved, caring parents – easy to avoid breaking. For example, to be criminally liable in Michigan, you need to be in control of the premises, know that minors are drinking and not do anything to correct it.
The most extreme versions don’t require your knowledge or presence. In fact, you can be charged if you didn’t do everything possible before the party you knew nothing about to prevent underage drinking. Many communities, including St. Paul, MN and Buffalo Grove, IL, have thought crime versions that fine any persons (including minors) who “permit, allow, host or fail to take reasonable steps to prevent” minors from drinking whether the “host” was home or not. The reasonable steps aren’t listed so the definition of “reasonable” is left to the opinion of the arresting officer. In Buffalo Grove, the fines begin at $1,000 for a first offender. In St. Paul, first offenders can also get up to 90 days in jail.
It’s easy to find state-level Social Host Laws on this site by visiting Social Host Laws by State. Also, look at the top of the Resources & Links page where there are links to additional sites that will let you search state, county or town laws and ordinances. Most county and city governments have their own websites which offer the county or town codes, but Social Host Laws aren’t easily found. If a quick search of the codes, using the words “Social Host” in quotes, doesn’t work, try contacting one of the following: your local sheriff or police station; run a search for “Social Host” on your local newspaper’s website or the patch.com for your town; call the local chapter of MADD; or your public high school’s social worker or guidance office. Finally, for help deciphering the law, visit our Social Host Law Primer.