Maryland’s Attorney General recently got people talking about underage drinking. He was caught red handed at a teen party where alcohol was being served. The issue is a parent’s duty to prevent underage drinking, and what happens if they don’t.
The news stories about this even usually discussed the political angle, but few made clear this is a legal issue as well. With the holidays fast approaching, this is a legal issue that may affect you soon.
What is the law regarding parents allowing teens to drink? Is it ever legal? Did Gansler break the law? Did the other parents who allowed the alcohol break the law? How far can parents go in allowing underage drinking?
We will leave the political analysis to others – concentrating strictly on the legal issues raised by this event. We will explain the laws about allowing underage drinking at your home, and the possible civil and criminal penalties you could face. We also provide links to some great resources for talking to your teens about drinking, preventing underage drinking, and how best to host a teen party without any fear of alcohol use.
Did you know that underage drinking is not always prohibited by law? It usually is, but there is an exception for possessing or furnishing alcohol to a minor who is (a) part of your immediate family, and (b) in a private resident or the curtilage of a private residence – meaning your yard. There is another exception for a religious service, so your 15 year old can drink the communion wine without fear.
That one paragraph is not the whole story. There are a other laws, and exceptions to those laws, and some important terms to define – so read on for the full story.
What is the “curtilage” of your house? “Curtilage” is one of those goofy legal terms defining a space around your house that you still control. Your front and back yards probably fall in the “curtilage” of your house. A field on your farm that is ½ mile from your home probably does not.
Defining terms is always important when looking at criminal laws. “Furnishing” alcohol to a minor is prohibited, with the same family or religious exceptions noted above. Furnishing means you knowingly and willfully provide alcohol to someone who is under 21 for the purpose of their consumption. But allowing possession of alcohol is also prohibited. Allowing just means you know about it and approve it.
To be guilty of furnishing or allowing underage drinking, the law requires you “knowingly and willfully” did it. This means you are not going to jail if your teenager steals liquor out of your liquor cabinet, but you will if you gave it to him, or if you allowed him to do it with your full knowledge.
Maryland and many other states have something known as “social host” laws. This makes it a crime to host a party where alcohol is served to minors. So you cannot legally use the excuse “if I don’t allow it here they will just go somewhere else and do it.” There is no set number of kids required to trigger this. Any provision of alcohol to a minor who is not your immediate family member will qualify. There is the same exception for your own immediate family. You must have “actual knowledge” of the party, so you won’t be guilty just because the kids party at your house without your knowledge.
The law provides for a fine up to $2500. But the bigger danger of violating this law is that you will be subject to a lawsuit for damages if a kid you provided alcohol hurts someone else, or themselves, or damages property.
In fact, the biggest possible liability from violating these laws is the chance some kid leaves your house drunk and causes an accident. You could be sued and found liable for the damages caused by the underage drunk driver you let loose on the public. If you don’t have enough homeowner’s liability insurance to cover something like that, a judgment will be entered against you. You could be forced to file for bankruptcy, or you could even lose your house.
So don’t host an underage gathering involving alcohol. But if you decide to violate the law and provide alcohol to the kids in your own house, at least take their keys and make sure they don’t drive away until the next morning. Investing in some inflatable mattresses is cheaper than defending a lawsuit.
Some helpful links: Virginia has a parent’s guide to hosting teen parties with great tips on keeping it alcohol free. They also have a party hosting guide which includes mocktails for non drinkers. Also see these tips for deterring underage drinking from the Washington Regional Alcohol Program If you need to talk to your child about alcohol, the National Institutes of Health has a publication on doing just that.
We hope this information helps you keep the holidays safe and DWI free!