The day had gone just as Les Foster had planned. More than 100 friends had gathered at his private dirt track for an annual day of car racing in Gardner, Kan., where Foster's team won the prized traveling trophy. By sunset, he had retired happily to his house down the road. The peace did not last. A few hours later, Foster, who runs an auto repair shop, was jolted awake by a knock on the door. It was the police, and they wanted to know what Foster could tell them about a 17-year-old boy who had been killed on the racetrack when his intoxicated teenage friend ran over him.
With that tragic episode began a two-year legal nightmare. Foster, 43, was convicted in 2006 of allowing underage drinking on his property, even though he says he did not know that the teens had returned to the track. He was sentenced to a year's probation and ordered to deliver six speeches about underage drinking to high school students. Then the victim's family filed a civil suit against him, demanding he pay them $2.5 million. His insurance company settled for $452,000.
Foster's is an experience that more and more adults—especially parents—may encounter as a growing number of states pass laws increasing parental liability for teenage drinking. Twenty-three states have now passed "social host" laws targeting adults who allow underage drinking in their homes. And 33 states have some form of civil liability laws. "Homeowners and parents are at risk now because they don't appreciate what their kids are doing in the backyard," says Suzanne Bass, a Florida attorney who has handled these suits.
Binge drinking. Although teen drinking rates have declined significantly over the past few decades, they remain disturbingly high: More than 40 percent of college students say they binge drink. And at more than 5,000 a year, alcohol-related fatalities remain the leading cause of death among teens.
The key statistic behind the new laws, however, is that two thirds of teens get their booze from adults. Some parents provide it deliberately, believing that if they condone it in moderation, their children will be less likely to abuse it. Stanton Peele, a psychologist and addiction expert, says research bears that theory out. "It's accurate to say that not drinking at home with parents is a significant risk factor," says Peele.
But advocates of the new laws take just the opposite view. Stricter parental liability, they say, can reverse society's tacit acceptance of underage drinking just as tougher laws have changed the public's attitude toward drunk driving. "We have to get adults to understand the ways in which [they] contribute to this problem," says Richard Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia and coeditor of a 2003 study by the National Academy of Sciences that called for increased enforcement against parents. "We're not going to change social norms among kids if we don't change social norms among parents."
Heightened parental liability raises thorny questions about where the balance of responsibility and punishment should lie. Should parents be jailed for allowing teens to drink? Can the law hold adults liable if they're not even aware of the drinking? Does a zero-tolerance policy encourage worse drinking habits among teens?
Critics say this prohibitionist tack will never eliminate teen drinking and is likely to push thoughtful discussion out of the public arena. "How much more do we need to spend in order to achieve enforcement that constitutes success?" asks John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College who is leading a national campaign to lower the drinking age to 18.
Jail sentence. There is no research on whether social host laws are effective, and most adults arrested under them are siblings or friends in their 20s. Still, it is clear the penalties are falling harder on parents. In June, Elisa Kelly of Charlottesville, Va., was sentenced to 27 months in jail for hosting a drinking party for her teenage son. She bought the alcohol and thought she was protecting the kids by taking their car keys for the night. And an Illinois couple, Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell, were convicted for allowing their son to host a drinking party after which two teens died in a car crash. A judge last week sentenced Sara to probation and her husband to 14 days in jail, with time off to go to work.
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.)
Although some party-goers testified against him, Holly was acquitted. Says an angry Perrin: "It should have been this man who paid the price." Trying to make him do just that, Perrin has filed a civil suit against Holly's wife, who owns their home. Holly's lawyer, Michael Erlich, says his client is not responsible. "It can get to a point where [the law is] not reasonable anymore," he says. "We have to hold teens to some standard that they can take responsibility."
Few would disagree with that sentiment, but the pressure is on public officials to fight teen drinking on all fronts. That's why Tucson, Ariz., which has also passed a social host ordinance, is focusing on landlords. In 2001, Tucson alerted landlords that they could be in legal trouble if they didn't take action against underage revelers. So Ricardo Fernandez, who manages a 300-unit apartment complex near the University of Arizona, declared that renters would be evicted if they violated the city's underage drinking laws. Other landlords followed suit. The result: Citywide arrest rates for minors caught with alcohol have dropped almost 20 percent since 2004.
Likewise, the city of Long Beach, N.Y., has taken a broader approach by extending the limits of its ban on outdoor drinking. "Social host is not a silver bullet," says Lt. John Radin of the Long Beach Police Department. "It's got to be part of a systematic strategy."