My 16-year-old son recently attended a holiday party at a friend’s home. What started out as a small party quickly escalated (as they often do!). According to my son, about 40 high school students were invited. But by 10 p.m., more than 80 had shown up. The parents of the teen throwing the party had gone out for the night and returned at midnight to find a lot more teenagers than expected and beer and alcohol bottles all over the place. They quickly shut the party down. The scenario made me think about what is parent liability for teenage drinking.
When my son originally told me about the party, the first thing I asked him was if kids were going to be drinking. “Of course,” he answered, “It’s a high school party.” That quickly snapped me out of my naivete. I find teenage fascination with drinking one of the most difficult parts of parenting through the teen years. My three teens think I’m a “mean mom” for not letting them throw parties at our home once they hit the high school years. I am pretty certain that I let them have a party and even did best to discourage alcohol, someone would find a way to sneak it in, which would open me to liability.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, my teenagers already are talking about house parties they are going to and I’m guessing there will be drinking going on at those parties. Beyond having the “alcohol” talk with my teens, I wondered…what are the legal risks for the hosts – and for anyone younger than 21 if the cops show up?
To get some answers, I reached out Jerry Merrill, a Kansas criminal defense lawyer with Merrill Law Firm who defends teenagers (and/or their parents) when they find themselves in legal trouble. Merrill is a network attorney with ARAG, legal insurance, which connects customers to attorneys as needed and covers the fees.
First I gave him this scenario:
Let’s say teens drink in your home and you know nothing about it. You weren’t home at the time and you didn’t supply the alcohol. But, the drinking leads to a problem: either someone gets sick from drinking too much, or someone leaves your home after drinking and gets into a car accident. Could you, the homeowner, be legally liable?
Merrill says yes. Depending on what state you are in, you could be subject to criminal charges andcivil lawsuits.
If some gets alcohol poisoning at your house or gets in an accident after leaving drunk, it can make a difference if you are home or not, Merrill said. “Criminal and civil laws have to do with knowledge, what knowledge you had and whether you had the means to prevent what occurred.” For example, if your teenager and his friends are drinking in your basement, the question becomes ‘did you know and turn a blind eye and should you have known?” he said.
Basically, Merrill said, parent liability comes down to knowledge. “It will be difficult for someone to charge you or sue you, if you would have had no knowledge of the drinking. Liability is based on the negligence law…were you negligent and did you breach a duty?”
Next, I gave Merrill another scenario:
What if you decide to be the “cool parents” who throw the party, supply the alcohol but stay at home to supervise. There is something called social host liability which makes the party hosts liable for any alcohol-related injuries or property damage that occur as a result of providing alcohol to minors.
Merrill suggests saying this to your teenager: “You can drag our family into serious legal issues by doing things shouldn’t be behind our back. It’s scary how little it would take for something to happen and for us to be legally liable.”
Remember Merrill defends teens and their parents. Each case is different, and often based on small facts, he said. For example, if your teen and/or his friends have taken alcohol from your liquor cabinet in the past and you didn’t put a lock on it, if something happens the next time that can create liability for you, the parent, he said.
Now, here’s another scenario:
What if your underage teen is at a party or hanging out at a park drinking and the police show up?
Merrrill explained that for a minor under 21, it’s not a crime to be around alcohol. Police have to show you are in possession or you consumed it to charge someone under 21 with Minor In Possession of Alcohol (MIP) or Minor in Consumption of alcohol (MIC), both are misdemeanors. However, when police raid a party and it can be hard for a teen to prove they weren’t drinking when the place is littered with liquor and beer. “Even if technically it can be proved, your teen is still in a situation in which he or she has to defend themselves in court,” Merrill said.
How common are MIP tickets? I asked Merrill.
“It almost always happens at a house party with group of kids and someone brings alcohol, or it happens in a parking lot…it almost always is a group setting where teens are congregating and they attract the attention of adults. Then when the police arrive, the teens have alcohol on them, or have consumed alcohol.”
If it’s a misdemeanor, what’s the punishment?
Getting charged with a Minor In Possession is serious, Merrill said. The punishment can be a fine, a license suspension, probation or required classes. But there’s something even more worrisome. “If you’re convicted and you fill out a job application or a college application and it asks: “Have you ever been convicted of misdemeanor, you have to answer is yes.”
Are there ways to defend yourself when you’re charged with minor in possession?
Merrill looks for any legal defense he possibly can use. “The goal is to mitigate the charges and help the teen through the system so the matter doesn’t impact their future.” Don’t try to defend yourself without hiring an attorney, he said. “If you just pay the fine you can still have it on your record.”
What’s the deal with legal insurance?
Earlier this year, RaisingTeensBlog.com became an affiliate partner with ARAG. When I first learned about legal insurance, I didn’t know what it was and hadn’t thought much about how parents of teens could find it useful. But paying a sum upfront for access to a network of attorneys as needed seems pretty useful when you find yourself in a legal predicament. I increasingly see how teens can get into legal trouble and how having legal insurance can offer some peace of mind.
Parents, if I didn’t ask Merrill a question you would like answered, please let me know by commenting below. And, if you ran into legal trouble regarding teens drinking in your home and can share your experience to help other parents, please do!