Why Allowing Minors to Drink at 4th Fest Parties Is a Bad Idea

Many people enjoy celebrating Independence Day by getting together with family and friends at a backyard cookout. Backyard barbeques often include having a few beers or mixed drinks. According to statistics, the 4th of July is one of the holidays during which many of the drinkers are under the age of 21. While many of us have imbibed some booze while being underage, that does not make it legal, not for the minor or the adult furnisher. Growing up, some adults permitted my friends and me to drink with the expectation that we would not drive afterwards, and the belief was that the adults could not prevent underage drinking, so the goal was to control the environment in which the drinking occurred. As a young man, I enjoyed the idea. As an adult, I understand the rationale, but I believe that I will take a different approach with my kids. I will not know definitively what I will do in this situation until I actually get to that point in my life. My kids are currently 10 and 8, so I am not too concerned about them consuming an alcohol just yet. However, when I do get to that point in my life, I do not believe I will permit my kids or their friends to drink because I understand the severe negative consequences to me personally, to the minors, and to the public at large that can flow from such a decision.

Furnishing Alcohol to Minors in Pennsylvania

Sadly, I am a very selfish person, a character flaw to which my wife can attest. Basically, my first thought is “what can happen to me.” By allowing a minor to drink on my property, I could be charged with a misdemeanor offense of Furnishing Alcohol to a Minor. Even if I do not purchase or physically hand a beer to a minor, I can still be charged with Furnishing. The legal definition of “furnishing” in Pennsylvania actually prohibits an adult from allowing a minor to possess alcohol “on premises or property owned or controlled by the person charged.” If I were convicted of Furnishing Alcohol to a Minor, I would face a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000.00 for the first incident, and the fine is increased to $2,500.00 for every subsequent incident. Incident does not mean furnishing incidents in the future but instead means each additional minor. For example, if there are three underage drinkers at my house, I would face a $1,000.00 fine for the first minor and two $2,500.00 fines for the remaining two minors. A very costly endeavor. As lawyer, I also have a professional license that could be placed in jeopardy with a criminal conviction. I could be suspended for a period of time based upon this conviction, so I would be prohibited from working and supporting my family.

Social Host Liability

Social host liability generally refers to the responsibilities placed on the host of a party in which a party attendee leaves after drinking and gets into an accident, and the phrase is generally used in the context of civil liability. This means that a party host can sometimes be sued if a guest gets drunk, leaves the party, and the drunk person injures someone else. Aside from the civil liability, the host can also face criminal penalties. In the case of Commonwealth v. McCloskey, 835 A.2d 801 (Pa. Super. 2003), a woman allowed minors to drink alcohol at her house, and a few of the minors left together in a car that was driven by a drunk minor. The driver wrecked the vehicle, and the driver as well as two passengers were killed. The homeowner was convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter for the deaths of the three minors. Of course the convictions led to jail time and a felony criminal record, but this woman and mother must also live with the fact that her actions indirectly led to the death of three other people.

Penalties for Underage Drinking

Aside from the liability to the adult, there are also negative ramifications for the minor. The minor can be charged with a summary violation of Underage Drinking.  A conviction of Underage Drinking carries a maximum sentence of up to 90 days in jail and a $500.00 fine for a first offense.  Also, according to Dana Rachko, a prevention specialist at the Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems in Delaware County, allowing kids to drink early is often counter-productive to reduce drinking as it instead increases alcohol tolerance. She noted that the current trend is to binge drink with hard liquor and alcohol games. I see that trend play out on a relatively routine basis as Penn State students are being charged with Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness with blood alcohol levels above a .20%, and some above a .30%, after chugging cheap vodka or some other hard liquor mixed in “jungle juice.”

Fortunately for me, my kids and their friends are not at the ages where they are going to be consuming any alcohol. However, when my kids do get a little older, and when I am faced with this issue, I do not believe that any minor will be drinking at my house. It also probably does not matter what I think because my wife is likely to tell me what to do anyway.

I hope that everyone has a safe and festive Fourth of July holiday.