New drinking law threatens homeowners

As of Oct. 1, 2012, underage drinkers can get Connecticut property owners charged with a misdemeanor offense.

Under a new law passed this June, any Connecticut property owner who permits underage drinking in his or her household “recklessly or with criminal negligence” could face a minimum of $500 in fines or one year in prison for first-time offenses. Serious offenders can now face charges of a class A misdemeanor — only one step below a felony — which calls for a fine of up to $2,000 as well as a possible one-year prison stint.

State legislators — led by State Representative John Frey, Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Ridgefield Police Chief John Roche — approved Public Act 12-199, a revision of the milder Social Host Law, earlier this year. The new legislation, which came into effect Monday, strengthened the Social Host Law; the earlier law did not penalize property owners for underage drinking that occurred on their property without their knowledge and did not implement the misdemeanor for offenders.

“People are still not automatically in violation if a minor is drinking on their property, but the person need not have actual knowledge to be in violation,” said Marconi.

The stricter measures were enacted in response to the deaths of two Ridgefield, Conn. teens. In August 2011, high school student Jacqueline Brice crashed into a tree and a rock with a recorded blood-alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the adult legal limit of 0.08 and far above the accepted limit of 0.02 for minors.

Brice was driving home from two house parties, one in which James Werner, a 20-year-old from Tarrytown, N.Y., supplied alcohol that was purchased with a fake identification card. Her death, along with three other teenage drunk driving deaths that year, caused legislators to recognize the need for a stricter law.

“Simply stated, the previous [Social Host Law] as written made it difficult for police to actually make an arrest of parents at a party where alcohol was being served to minors under 21,” Marconi said. “The parents claimed that they had no knowledge that alcohol was present.”

Isabella Huffington ’14, a Davenport junior who rented a house directly across the street from the Sigma Epsilon and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity houses, said she thinks the law is “ridiculous.”

“You can’t be held responsible for what other people do in your house,” Huffington said. “We’re old enough to be responsible for our own decisions.”

Huffington also worried the law could supercede what she perceived as Yale’s “open policy,” in which students can feel safe and confidential about taking their over-intoxicated friends to the hospital.

“Now, [because of the law], people are afraid to help their friends because they’ll get in trouble,” she said.

Some Connecticut residents oppose Public Act 12-199, including Laura James, the mother of two teenage boys, who said she disagreed with the act.

“I think that kids should be held responsible for their actions,” James says. “When parents are unaware, they shouldn’t be penalized. If they are [aware], they should be.”

James said she hosted a “supervised” party at her house last New Year’s Eve, but only after calling the parents of the attendees and requesting their permission to serve their children alcohol.

“Kids should be allowed to drink before they get their license,” James said. “It’s important for kids to learn how to drink responsibly and function quite well. It would also help our kids if they learned their limits before they’re behind the wheel of a car.”

In 2010, 57 cases of under-18 year olds driving under the influence were reported.

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