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A Move to Punish Hosts That Furnish Liquor to Teens

After more two hours of listening to compelling and spirited points from both sides of the issue, the City Council Tuesday unanimously gave preliminary approval to a new law that would penalize adults for “knowingly” allowing minors to drink at parties in their homes.

More than 40 residents as well as a prosecutor who specializes in vehicular manslaughter spoke their mind about the proposed Social Host Ordinance, which would subject hosts 21 and older to fines and criminal prosecution for repeat offenses. Their entreaties ranged from imposing full legal and financial responsibility on party-hosting adults to allowing parents to self-regulate and refuting the need for more policing authority and what some called ambiguous restrictions.

Police Chief Paul Workman agreed concerns raised about police discretion in enforcing the proposed ordinance would require establishing a consistent policy of protocol to allay those fears.  He said the ordinance is targeted at certain “problem people” who are “very irresponsible and do this right-of-passage thing with kids where they’re openly providing them with alcohol.”

Workman’s staff drafted the ordinance in May at the request of the Laguna Beach Coalition.  It has since elicited introspective debate among parents, at least two opposition petition drives and lingering embarrassment over MTV’s portrayal of liquor-swilling Laguna teens.

The coalition group is comprised of representatives from the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, the Boys and Girls Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Laguna Presbyterian Church, the school district and Mission Hospital, among other organizations. Workman said the original wording of the ordinance was revised to mirror a similar ordinance in San Diego that has withstood legal challenges.

The ordinance would result in a $1,000 administrative fine or option to attend a remedial class at the violator’s cost for the first offense and a $1,000 fine and criminal misdemeanor charge for every subsequent offense. The proposed ordinance, including new enforcement guidelines, will be discussed again at the council’s Dec. 4 meeting and, if approved, will take effect 30 days later.

“The last thing we want is for our young people to fall into a habit of dependency at an early age,” said council woman Toni Iseman, a retired college counselor who noted the developmental delays in people who started drinking as adolescents. “I saw them at the college, 21 going on 15.”

The council added several concessions to the silent arm-wave approval of both opponents and proponents in the near-capacity crowd.

The preliminary ordinance will include an immunity clause for anyone calling emergency services to help an inebriated minor, including hosts. The police department was requested to report regularly on the effectiveness of the ordinance.

Major Jane Egly also requested that Laguna Beach High School promote the local Safe Rides program, where volunteers offer free rides to students in need, prior to approval of the ordinance.

Schools Supt. Sherine Smith told the council that the high school promotes the Safe Rides program through its Interact Club, but she added that other options are available. “Call your parents,” Smith said.  “They might be really mad but they’d much rather have you home safe and sound than to have you driving with someone under the influence or driving under the influence yourself.”

One graduate as well as a current student contradicted Smith, saying the high school banned the Safe Rides program from being promoted on campus.

“They feel it encourages kids’ drinking,” explained Kimmie Hackney, a high school junior and Interact Club member.  “But that doesn’t make sense because would you rather kids get a ride home from somebody safely or would you rather have them find their own way home drunk?”

The hearing brought out high-profile support, including vehicular homicide Deputy District Attorney  Anna McIntire and county Supervisor-elect Todd Spitzer. Spitzer, a former prosecutor, pointed out Laguna Beach has the worst record for DUI arrests per capita in the state, conceding that much of that activity is due to visitors. He later cited the state Department of Motor Vehicles as the source of his information. (Among small cities, Laguna held the worst record in 2009 for alcohol-involved fatalities and injuries, according to the latest state Office of Traffic Safety figures.) Several speakers also noted that the two-year MTV reality show, “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” that premiered in 2004, also contributed to the town’s reputation for portraying local teens as drinkers.

McIntire said the proposed ordinance bridges a gap in current state law, which already prohibits adults and businesses from contributing to the delinquency of minors but is difficult to prosecute. Making “knowing” hosts culpable for parties where minors are drinking will make enforcement easier, she said.

Some studies actually report an increase in alcohol-related collisions after social host laws were enacted, pointed out LBHS graduate Adam Redding-Kaufman, who, along with other students, drafted and submitted an alternative ordinance. Drinkers will flee in their cars if they suspect police have been called to a home where they are partying, Redding-Kaufman said, quoting from one study.

Still others felt the ordinance would have no constructive effects, and possibly destructive ones.

“The kids who truly are the problems with alcohol abuse are going to other cities…to have even bigger parties, causing more of a scene that’s unknown to parents, blacking out in other cities,” said Maya Keces, an LBHS junior. Maya said word at the high school about the proposed ordinance is exacerbating poor choices.

“I can almost guarantee you that the children who are most at risk are not in this room tonight,” said Mary Dolphin, who said her brother died from alcoholism. “His serious drinking began in the house of a friend and her mother was the typical enabler.  She went out and bought the alcohol.  She made sure they were all fully inebriated. They were all 17.”  Dolphin proposed that the ordinance might publically shame the knowing hosts, which could curtail their actions. “Shame is a very powerful inhibiter.”

The Dec. 4 council meeting will also see a council change-of-guard with incumbent council members Jane Egly and Verna Rollinger stepping down and elected newcomers Steve Dicterow and Bob Whalen taking their seats.

A remedial class with a fee specifically for adults hosting drinking parties for teens will be developed at a later date.

 

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