Barrington, R.I., is an affluent seaside community where two teens died in drunk-driving accidents in 2005. Police there observed that more parents were allowing their children to drink at home. But they had trouble charging parents because they couldn't always prove that the parents had bought the alcohol for the teens.
It was a dilemma faced by other Rhode Island towns. So in 2006, the General Assembly passed a law allowing police to charge parents criminally for permitting underage drinking even if they didn't provide the booze. It allows for religious exemptions (such as drinking wine on the Jewish Sabbath) but is otherwise among the nation's stiffest. The penalty is a minimum $350 fine and up to six months behind bars.
The college town of Salisbury, Md., doesn't have a social host law. But single mother Janet Lane found herself in legal trouble last year when the police broke up a party thrown by her two sons while she was at a business conference. Responding to a tip from another parent, police found music blaring, beer bottles strewn on the lawn, and one teen gagging on his own vomit. Breathalyzer tests showed that 11 of the 24 teens—although not Lane's sons—had been drinking. Lane, a paralegal, says she knew nothing of the ruckus, but police slapped her with more than a dozen charges of allowing minors to drink.
The evidence—largely based on partygoers who were themselves intoxicated—was shaky, and a neighbor was eventually convicted of buying the booze. Eventually, though, Lane pleaded guilty to having a disorderly house, and the police dropped the other charges. But the experience left Lane with $3,000 in legal bills and a bitter taste. "They had a good reason for trying to understand who did it," she says. "But how they went about it was wrong."
In California, meanwhile, officials have taken a different approach to teen drinking: steep fines. The state does not have a criminal social host ordinance, but individual counties have targeted parents with civil laws that allow police to fine them—in some cases up to $2,500—for allowing underage drinking. Officials in Marin County, a liberal enclave north of San Francisco, worried that criminalizing parental involvement would send the wrong message; the goal wasn't to punish people but to deter bad behavior. So the county passed a civil fine ordinance under which police have cited four people, including one 19-year-old who called the police herself when a party got out of hand.
One of the two parents fined under the ordinance was Mill Valley businesswoman Deborah Walters. She had allowed her 17-year-old son to host some friends for a barbecue and explicitly forbade drinking. She was in the house when the police came (in answer to a neighbor's complaint) and found the boys drinking beer outside. Walters was fined $750, a penalty she is making her son pay back at $100 a month. "He knows that if he does it again," she says, "he doesn't have a place to live."
In some jurisdictions, proposed liability laws have encountered challenges. Davette Baker, director of a substance abuse project in Harrodsburg, Ky., successfully pushed through a social host ordinance in her town. But when she took the proposal to nearby Burgin, she struck out. The police chief argued that state laws already on the books, such as one concerning an unlawful transaction with a minor, gave him the ability to charge adults.
Fatal crash. In other cases, prosecutions have failed. Rebekah Perrin of Warren, Mass., lost her 19-year-old daughter, Abbigayle, in a drunk-driving accident just after Christmas in 2005. Abbigayle, a vivacious athlete and recent high school graduate, hadn't been drinking. But she had left a house party after midnight in a car with a friend who had. The friend crashed into a guardrail, and Abbigayle was killed almost instantly.
Prosecutors charged the friend, then went after Marc Holly, the father of the teen who held the party, alleging that he not only allowed the drinking party but joined the youths in a game of beer pong. During his trial on a misdemeanor charge, Holly denied condoning the drinking and said he found out only when he returned from an evening out. (Jurors also didn't know he had been incarcerated for coming to court high on cocaine.)