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What Can Happen to Hosts of Parties Where Drinking is Taking Place?

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At social gatherings, such as the upcoming Thanksgiving Holiday, I am often cornered and asked legal questions by family and friends, such as wills and estate issues, custody disputes, and, if people happen to be drinking at the gathering, discussions often gravitate towards DUI charges and the liability of the person hosting the party.  The liability of the person hosting the party is generally referred to as "social host liability."  When trying to answer the "social host liability" question, I first inform the questioner that I am only a criminal defense lawyer and cannot speak towards civil liability. In speaking with lawyer friends, it is my understanding that whether or not the host provided the alcohol or had a BYOB gathering can make a difference. For example, in Massachusetts a BYOB gathering does not impose social host liability, so if a drunk party attendee leaves and injures someone, the attendee and not the host is civilly liable.

In the criminal setting, if the people consuming the alcohol are underage, then the host is criminally liable in Pennsylvania regardless of whether the host supplied the alcohol or simply had a BYOB party.  The definition of "furnishing" in Pennsylvania is broad and actually includes allowing a person under the age of 21 to consume alcohol in an area over which the host has control. Therefore, hosting a BYOB party for underage people can result in Furnishing Alcohol to Minors charges.  Some parents refuse to provide alcohol but will give underage drinkers a place to party as they believe that it is safer to supervise the activity and thereby ensure that the underage drinkers are not driving.  Under the law, while such parents believe that they are being responsible by acknowledging that underage drinking will occur and are preventing drinking and driving, such people can be charged with Furnishing Alcohol to Minors and Unlawful Acts relative to liquor.

Furnishing Alcohol to Minor Charges and ARD Eligiblity

Generally speaking, if the underage people were college students, a first offense of Furnishing Alcohol to Minors is often resolved via participation in a first-time offender program known as ARD. If the social host was a parent and "furnished" alcohol to high school students, then many district attorneys do not allow the social host to participate in the ARD program. For example, a few years ago, State College High School students had a BYOB party with the permission of some parents, and the parents were charged with Furnishing Alcohol to Minors because the party took place at the parents' home. The Centre County District Attorney denied the parents' request to participate in the ARD program because the underagers were high school students.

The typical Furnishing case, involving Penn State students having an underage party, are often resolved via participation in the ARD program. The Centre County ARD program for non-DUI offenses generally requires the participant to be subject 12 months of supervision by the Centre County Probation Department, complete 1 day of community service, and pay over $1,000.00 in ARD costs and fees. Upon completion of the ARD program, the criminal defendant is eligible to have the charges dismissed and expunged. A failure to successfully complete the program results in removal from the program, and the district attorney thereafter resumes prosecution of the charges. The ARD program is often used for relatively minor misdemeanor offenses such as Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, DUI, Furnishing Alcohol to Minors, Disorderly Conduct, and some Theft offenses.

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