Adults Responsible When Teens Drink… May 20, 2015
By Ann Needle
Can parents get in legal trouble because teens were drinking in their house? Yes — and the legal punishment may not be the biggest toll, according to a state prosecutor. As the school year closes and graduation parties get underway, Nashoba Regional High School held a forum last Tuesday on social hosting of underage students.
Middlesex Asst. District Attorney Lauren Miller, who regularly prosecutes cases involving alleged underage drinkers, warned the very small audience (two parents) that hosting or allowing parties in their homes for a child and his or her underage friends — and their alcohol — is not the smart way to stop dangerous behavior. And, she cautioned, it’s a move that carries potential legal and emotional consequences that can echo through a family’s life.
Massachusetts law on adults providing alcohol to minors is simple; it’s illegal. The only exception is their own underage children or grandchildren. This is a paradox where taking the simple route — don’t let underage children drink — is the safest, said Miller.
“Kids drinking under 21 in the home sends the wrong message; don’t send the message that it’s okay to break some laws and not others,” Miller stressed. “Just because you can give your children alcohol, it’s still illegal for a kid under 21 to drink it. It doesn’t make sense, but if it’s against the law, you should follow it.”
The law allowing adults to provide alcohol to their children or grandchildren is there to safeguard special situations, such as religious reasons, she said. And Miller commented that she has never prosecuted a case involving underage drinking at religious occasions.
Instead, she said court records are filled with stories regarding underage drinkers and drug users leaving parties where the state believes parents at least knew drinking could be going on in their home, Miller said.
Parents always question just how close to these situations they need to be to be held responsible, and the answer is “not very,” said Miller.
For instance, in the classic case of minors breaking into a parent’s liquor cabinet, she explained that the state checks that the parents had “reasonable measures” in place to stop it, such as storing the alcohol in an out-of-the-way place (though it doesn’t necessarily need to be locked up). However, if the parents host an adults-only party, then leave the liquor out for a few days, they could be liable if minors dip in and get into legal trouble, she maintained.
If an underage child hosts a party where the parent hasn’t allowed liquor, Miller pointed out that the state still expects the parent to at least check in and ask, “What are you drinking?” Similarly, if a visiting adult provides alcohol to a minor in a person’s house, the homeowner could be considered providing it by proxy if they have not monitored who is drinking, she said.
Some parents believe they can stop the consequences of underage drinking by simply collecting car keys from party guests and allowing them to drink in their homes. “You’re probably thinking it’s safer, but some kids bring two sets of keys,” or call a friend — who could also be under the influence — to pick them up. Miller stressed, “You really want to stay away from this. You are not in control unless you have your eye on them every minute.”
If an adult is found guilty of serving or allowing minors to drink alcohol in their home, Miller reported the legal penalty can be a fine of up to $5,000 and/or 2-1/2 to 15 years in prison. This holds even if the adult is simply deemed negligent, such as if they did not do anything to check if underage drinking was going on, she added.
As for teens, they should be especially aware that “physical proximity” to fellow underage friends and their alcohol is enough to get them in legal trouble, Miller cautioned. “A kid doesn’t need to touch [alcohol] to be considered in possession,” she said. “It’s about physical proximity.”
Miller pointed to the example of teens arrested at a large house party in Littleton, though it is possible not all were drinking. Though none of the teens were prosecuted, the arrests stay on their court records, even if they have them sealed as minors. But if potential scholarship organizations and employers ask if the person has been arrested, they must answer yes, Miller maintained.
The horror stories of what has happened after underage drinkers left a house party are quite real, said Miller. She outlined a recent case in Middlesex county where an $8 million civil lawsuit was filed against a family that provided alcohol to minors. After leaving the house, one of the underage drivers struck and killed a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
“I hate these cases. It’s one thing when it’s a bad person, but when it’s a young person who made a mistake, no one wins,” Miller reflected.
But more often, underage drinkers can suffer social and emotional aftermath from making a misstep after drinking at a house, such as getting kicked off a sports team if their coach finds out.
“For that kid, it’s a quality of life issue,” she noted. “Looking back at the kid’s high school years, the family never forgets why he couldn’t play football again.”