Underage Drinking & the Law

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



What is a Social Host?

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.

What are Social Host Laws (SHLs)?

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.

What happens if I get charged as a Social Host?

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.

Why are Social Host Laws (SHLs) controversial?

Five reasons:

  1. Guilt is irrelevant. Social Host Laws were created when it became too difficult to prove who provided the alcohol for a group of underage drinkers. Frustrated law enforcement complained they knew who the bad guys were but they couldn’t do anything about it. So, Social Host Laws have much simpler requirements than other alcohol beverage control laws: you’re liable if your name is on the lease or the deed or if you sent out the invitations.That makes the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” irrelevant. It’s now the homeowner’s responsibility to prevent any underage drinking. It’s a difficult standard to live up to, even for involved, caring parents. This is the main reason so many upstanding citizens have been charged under this law: doctors, teachers, school board members, town board members, state representatives, even a Chief of Police and a member of a community coalition advocating for tighter restrictions.
  2. They may be unconstitutional. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the state’s Social Host Law in 2002 because it was considered “unconstitutionally vague.” In February 2012, Massachusetts’ Supreme Court rejected a clause of the state’s civil law that applied to social hosts under the age of 21. In Minnesota, there have been several challenges to local ordinances for being unconstitutionally vague. State laws are under more scrutiny than local ordinances, which means a misstep at the state level will be challenged more quickly. Drafting state statutes is a complex and highly supervised activity while local ordinances are often copies of what the town council up the road did in their community. The result can be local ordinances which are excessively broad, poorly drafted and open to interpretation.
  3. Overly broad laws lead to arbitrary enforcement.  Constitutional law identifies the lack of “explicit standards for those who apply it” as one of the major paths to “encouraging arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement”. When a law is as broad as most Social Host Laws are, the sheriff at your door has to interpret the law as well as enforce it. That can easily translate into inconsistent and injudicious enforcement and favoritism.
  4. Mission creep. Social Host Laws were originally conceived to catch permissive parents and predatory grown ups. However, most versions have been rewritten so the definition of a Social Host has been broadened from adult to person. When the law targets adults, it’s defined as 21 (or 18) and older. When      the law says person, it’s defined as “any individual or group of individuals”. That can mean your 15-year-old or you.
  5. Follow the money. The fines paid by Social Hosts subsidize local law enforcement. Therefore, there’s a significant fiscal incentive for a cash-strapped police department to refocus weekend hours on catching Social Hosts.  Doing so requires minimal investigative work and provides a new revenue stream. With an average fine of $250 for a first offender, a parent can come home from dinner to learn they’re liable for $5,000 in fines for a party of twenty guests they didn’t plan or condone. Petty thieves are harder to catch and they’re not as valuable.


What’s the difference between criminal and civil Social Host Laws (SHLs)?

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.

What other important distinctions are there?

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.

To read some sample laws, click here.

How can I find out which types of Social Host Law are in effect in my area?

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.

54 comments on “FAQs

  1. Travis
    May 29, 2017

    I am 24, my brother is 19. We live on our own. He is a bit of a bad apple and will invite 5ish friends over and drink/play loud music at 2am or even later. I have no way of knowing their ages but do know they would be supplying the alcohol.

    My question would be my liability both in the case if the police showed up due to a noise complaint and if they left the premesis and did anything. I do not participate and am not informed ahead of time if something is set up.

    How aggressive do I need to be in this situation to protect both myself and my parents (who technically own the home I pay rent at).


    • HM Epstein
      May 29, 2017

      Travis, all of you are at risk if there is a noise complaint and police find underage drinking happening inside the property or in the backyard. Your brother is at risk for hosting because legally he is an adult even though he is a minor with regard to the underage drinking laws. The police could stop there, but they could charge you since you are technically equally in control of the property and have permitted this activity. They could extend the penalties to your parents as owners of the property but I would be surprised if they went that far. Depending on where you are, there are steep fines and a possibility of jail time. If any of the four of you are charged, you need to hire attorneys to avoid jail time. That can get very expensive. Allegations of hosting could affect the job you have or your brother has, or the training you’re undergoing. or any future plans for education or work opportunities for your brother and you. If you are in a career that requires licensing or certification or background checks, that could be affected as well. I recommend that you share this website with your brother and tell him he’s putting you at risk. Perhaps he’s had enough events in your shared home and it’s time for one of his friends to step up. It’s hard for one sibling to tell another he needs to change his ways but you should be able to insist that at least he change his location.

  2. Sheyla
    February 7, 2016

    Hello, my son have 15 years old, yesterday he when to a birthday party, after an hour in half someone called me amnd let me know me my son was vomiting in the bathroom and to pick him up…they told me he was in a bad condition, and run to get him, They open the door for me, rhe parents was there, I was so upset and I told them what happend why they did not called me, they told me they do not lnow what’s going on…that was a lie(I have prouf, pictures, videos,etc they were drinking at the girl house) parents told me my came drunk, mother of the girl push me and I told her do not put her hand on my, I know I can’t nothing to her, I was in her house. Girls father was screaming, and insulting me.NO ONE CALL THE POLICE, I live in New Jersey, I decide to take my son to ER his alcohol level was 1.05, after I collect all evidence I decided to go to my son school and talk to them in privade, I will talk to my son today, consequences of his action, he will be granted, and he will no go to this kind of party anymore, but I want this parents and other parents to learn something from this. I know will be more parties like this, do you think of I call anonymous to the police if I know is another party my son will be in trouble?? What about the kids are in there drinking?? Do you think is a good call I made? It is his first time that I saw him like this, he confess to me is his second time already, I a active parent I always talk to him about alcohol, sex, drugs, consequences and everything…can you give your advice?

    • HM Epstein
      February 7, 2016

      These parents sound like difficult people. The way they handled the situation is extremely disappointing. I understand your anger. I strongly recommend you channel your energy into helping your son recognize why his behavior is dangerous. There are many resources in the community to help you do this.

      You can also start a safe home movement through the PTA at your son’s school. Many schools do this. They have families sign pledges that underage alcohol consumption will not be permitted in their home and the student address book has an asterisk next to the homes who signed the pledge. That helps you to identify places where your son will be safe and homes where he will not.

      Community pressure is another good step. Let all of your friends know that the home where these difficult people live is not a safe home for their children to be in. Ask your friends to spread the word to other parents. It’s a proven and effective way to isolate them from doing more damage to other children.

      If you call the police, though, recognize that your anonymity is not guaranteed. Do so only if you are willing to carry this through to the legal conclusion of pressing charges against the parents for serving alcohol, endangering the health of your child, and specifically for the costs of taking him to the emergency room. Recognize that this approach will cost you greatly in terms of your time and energy and relationship with others in the community. It also has a small chance of success since you have to prove that your son drank their alcohol and not his own. Depending on where you live, admitting to the police that your son consumed alcohol and ended up in the emergency room, may boomerang and have legal consequences for your son. The last thing you want to do is hurt his chances of staying on his team at school or getting a scholarship to college one day. It will also hurt your son’s relationships with his friends, even those who did not attend the party. However, there are other ways to proceed, as outlined above.

      • Sheyla
        February 7, 2016

        Thank you for your comment, I will try to take another choice to help others parents and let them know what’s going on in these kind of parties. I was worry and one of my big question was if he will have consequences in his future,he is a great student, he is in honor classes, i want my son to attend to college in his future.

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