New laws add high price to pay for parties

City, state measures make hosting underage drinkers easier to prosecute

By Christine Metz

May 23, 2010

Last February, Lawrence Police arrived at a rowdy house party in a west Lawrence subdivision.

As they approached, a young man walked out the front door with a beer in his hand. He was one of about 50 guests.

Advertisement At the time, Austen Jeter, a Kansas University student and one of four men throwing the party, wasn’t too concerned. In a college town like Lawrence, Jeter figured students were busted all the time for throwing parties. And he had never heard of anyone getting into serious trouble for it.

Then he went to court.

Jeter, whose prior record didn’t extend beyond parking violations, soon learned that breaking the social hosting law was a crime that came with the possibility of one year in jail and a minimum $1,000 fine.

All four roommates were charged with disturbing the peace and hosting a party where minors were served alcohol. The fines totaled about $1,200 apiece.

“So $4,800 for a party? No thanks, won’t be partaking in that again,” Jeter wrote in an e-mail this week.

Following a new law

Jeter is one of 11 people issued citations by the Lawrence Police Department since last July. That’s when Lawrence City Commission beefed up its social hosting law, which prohibits those throwing parties from giving alcohol to minors.

With The New Tradition Coalition, Jen Brinkerhoff pushed to change Lawrence’s social hosting law. She is encouraged by the new set of statistics.

“That is great work on behalf of law enforcement. I really commend them for stepping up. Now we just need to see the follow-through from the legal system in finding these individuals guilty,” said Brinkerhoff, who is director of prevention for the Douglas County Citizens Committee on Alcoholism, or DCCCA.

Of the unlawful hosting charges that have come before Lawrence Municipal Court in the past 11 months, one defendant was found guilty, three have been diverted with $1,252 fines, one case was dismissed, five are still pending and one is set for trial.

Already more people have had to pay the full fine for violating the social hosting law than all defendants in the previous four years.

“It is much easier to convict now,” Lawrence city prosecutor Jerry Little said.

Previously, prosecution had trouble producing physical proof that the person hosting the party intentionally invited the minor to it. Without the proof, the charges didn’t stand up in court.

Last summer, city commissioners changed the law, establishing a presumption that everyone attending the party was invited. The new law also placed a greater responsibility on the hosts, requiring that they control the access of alcohol by minors and verify ages through photo IDs.

Help through grants

Something else changed in the past year as well. Lawrence Police Department received or participated in three grants targeted toward alcohol enforcement.

For the police, busting teens for drinking is a time-consuming task that requires a lot of manpower.

Often underage drinking parties are discovered through noise complaints or from a person passing along a tip before the party. When police arrive, the underage drinkers scatter, and the residents of the home can be hard to track down.

Grants dedicated specifically toward enforcing underage drinking laws help, Lawrence Police Sgt. Bill Cory said.

“Routinely those officers who work when those parties happen are busy with a bunch of other stuff that may or may not be alcohol related — fights, burglary calls, accidents, whatever. Sometimes, there is not time to enforce those underage drinking laws,” Cory said. “Yes, in a perfect world we would like to put resources toward that, and we do that through grants.”

Holding parents responsible

Kansas legislators passed the social hosting law in 2004 after Lenexa teen Paul Riggs died in a car accident. He was leaving a party where there was alcohol and the parents were home.

Last year, the Legislature added more weight to the statewide law.

Now, hosts would be responsible even if they didn’t intentionally supply alcohol to underage drinkers but acted recklessly.

“Intentionally means they actually gave permission, which is a harder thing to prove than reckless, where they kind of knew it was going on and they didn’t do anything to stop it,” Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson said.

Thompson used the law earlier this month when a Tonganoxie couple, Julie and Richard Whaler, were charged with hosting parties where alcohol was served to minors.

Leavenworth County focuses on parents when enforcing the law, Thompson said. The most recent case, which stems from a Valentine’s Day party and events dating back to October, is a timely reminder as high school students graduate.

“We wanted to illustrate the fact that we take this very seriously. And we will be very proactive,” Thompson said. “(We) hope to cause some type of prevention of teenagers, parents or anyone thinking it is OK to host a party.”

A pricey party

While the law might have been written with parents in mind, DCCCA’s Brinkerhoff is perfectly fine with it being applied to young adults.

“Because we live in a large college town ... it’s not their parents that are hosting parties, it is their peers,” she said.

Jeter admits his trip through the court system will keep him from throwing another party like the one in February.

But he questions the fairness of the social hosting law, especially when compared with fines levied on those caught drinking and driving. Under Kansas law, a first conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol comes with a fine that is no less than $500 and no more than $1,000.

“When all is said and done, a person who is having a party with minors is in more trouble than someone who is out driving drunk on the roads. I think the law has good intentions, I just think they should re-evaluate the punishment,” Jeter wrote.

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