Laws against providing alcohol to minors at homes being considered

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10:00 PM PST on Saturday, November 15, 2008
The Press-Enterprise

Inland law enforcement officers can arrest minors who have alcohol in public and they can bust bartenders and shopkeepers who sell it to them, but they have trouble stopping underage drinking where it happens most: at home.

Officials in several Inland cities are hoping a proposed law will discourage adults -- including parents -- from serving minors alcohol at parties, which police say is one of the toughest situations for enforcing the drinking age law.

Corona and Norco are among the first Inland cities to consider a "social host" ordinance, a law that several dozen cities and a few counties around the state have adopted.

The law would let police give citations and fines to adults who serve minors alcohol in a private home.

A coalition of local groups that support youth and fight substance abuse are backing the proposal, and officials in both cities have encouraged their efforts.

The law would target people 21 and older who provide the alcohol to minors, whether they're young adults throwing the party or parents looking the other way when their child's friend spikes the punch.

"I think when parents look at (the situation) they say, 'I don't want my kid out drunk driving, so I'll keep him home where he can drink with his friends,' " Corona police Detective Alan Lorton said. "But when the friends leave, where do they go?"

Proponents of the social host law say Corona and Norco are in desperate need of it.

In 2005, 10 people younger than 21 were killed in a span of four months in vehicle crashes thought to be alcohol-related.

The youngest victim was 13.

The problem led Norco parent Richard Hallam to form a group, United Norconians for Life Over Alcohol and Drugs.

Hallam said his oldest son and several friends were busted for drunken driving soon after graduating high school.

"There's a drinking problem in Norco with minors," he said. "It has to do with the cowboy thing. It's like a rite of passage in Norco."

To Lorton, it's more than just drunken driving -- teens who drink make themselves vulnerable to rape and assault and they're more likely to behave dangerously.

Nurse Jodi Brooks, who pitched the law in Corona last month, points to research showing brains aren't fully developed until people are in their 20s. Alcohol can inhibit development and increase the chance of a young drinker becoming dependent on alcohol later, she said.

Officials say the social host rule, as a civil citation, would fill a gap in the law that makes it hard to charge adults who provide alcohol at home with a crime.

State law makes it difficult for officers to act when the violation is not in a public place and the officers don't see it happen, Lorton said.

"We have to have a witness, because it's a crime that didn't occur in our presence," said Randy Pentis, assistant police chief in Thousand Oaks, where a social host law has been in place since 2006. "It can be very difficult to prove."

To give a civil citation to a party host, officers in Thousand Oaks must find four underage people who have been drinking, question the host and take pictures of the alcohol.

Pentis said officers wouldn't cite parents who were away from home if they took reasonable precautions to prevent a party, but parents who are home or condone underage drinking at their house could get a ticket.

'A Loud Message'

All 10 of the cities in Ventura County have social host rules, and Pentis said the county Sheriff's Department serves five of them, including Thousand Oaks.

Since the rules were adopted in 2006, he said, 107 citations have been issued.

Fines range from $500 to $2,500 for a first offense. There have been few repeat offenders.

"I think it's successful anecdotally, because it's hard to track crimes that could have occurred" but didn't because of enforcement, Pentis said. "There's a reduction in parties that we're responding to, but it doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist at parties that we're not even aware of."

So far no Inland cities have a social host law in place, but Moreno Valley is considering one and San Jacinto approved a similar rule in 2007 that only applies to parents or guardians.

Corona and Norco are still drafting theirs and have not decided the penalties yet. Laguna Hills will vote on a social host ordinance this month.

Corona Councilman Stan Skipworth and Norco Councilwoman Kathy Azevedo said they will support the law in their respective cities.

Azevedo said she thinks it will send "a loud message" to the community, and Lorton expects to see results quickly.

"Once a couple of people start getting hit with fines or consequences for this, it'll spread like wildfire," Lorton said. "Nobody's parents are going to want to have the party at their house."

Reach Alicia Robinson at 951-893-2107 or arobinson@PE.com

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