by Matt Rosenberg September 19th, 2011
The Mercer Island City Council Monday night will consider whether to approve the drafting of an ordinance that could levy civil fines on adults responsible for premises where underage alcohol consumption has occurred, even if the drinking occurred without their knowledge. The ordinance would be intended to fill a hole in state law, which punishes adults who knowingly permit drinking on their premises by individuals less than 21 years of age, but gives them an “out” if they claim ignorance.
In a Sept. 19 memo to the council from City Attorney Katie Knight, a flat civil penalty of $250 is recommended for violations of the new local ordinance, if it is ultimately adopted, but with a clear avenue of defense if there’s evidence of upfront prevention efforts by parents. Knight also suggests that the conceived measure be tailored to gatherings of four or more where at “at least one underage person possesses, consumes or exhibits the effects” of drinking alcoholic beverages. Another recommendation is that it pinpoint drinkers 18 and younger to keep the focus on the preventive role of parents. This could help avoid complications from holding landlords or co-tenants responsible for underage drinking by 19- and 20-year-olds.
In the last decade, the affluent community of Mercer Island has been rocked by a teenage drinking problem. In response the city launched the Communities That Care project to raise awareness and provide prevention resources to parents and students. One key step was commissioning a localized study by Columbia University psychologist Suniya S. Luthar, who helped to energize the conversation when she presented her findings in 2007, as reported by the Seattle Times.
In support of civil penalties against adults for covert underage drinking on their premises, the director of Communities That Care also sent a memo to the council, which accompanies Knight’s in the Monday Sept. 19 meeting packet.
Derek Franklin noted that though the rate is at a 10-year-low, 44 percent of Mercer Island 12th graders still report drinking in the last 30 days and that underage drinking is linked to “increased rates of violence, property damage, sexual assault, alcohol poisoning, impaired driving and death.” Franklin asserts that a so-called “social host ordinance” such as that proposed for Mercer Island is a smart move because it effectively targets house parties where most binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row) occurs. Other premises could also be covered by the ordinance, such as vehicles and hosted outdoor spaces. There’s anecdotal evidence that social host ordinances have been successful in other locales such as Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Tucson, Franklin stated.
More than nine of ten Mercer Island households of public middle and high school students report that they already don’t allow underage drinking, according to a 2009 survey, and the ordinance “can reinforce the existing majority culture of responsible hosting on Mercer Island,” Franklin added.
The Council Monday could spell out what it wants to see in a social host ordinance and direct city staff to draft one for first reading at an upcoming meeting; or it could choose to end any further consideration of the matter.
UPDATE: The city council by a vote of 7-0 on Sept. 19 directed staff to draw up the ordinance for review at a later meeting this year. (More details in Sept. 19 meeting minutes).
2010 Mercer Island Healthy Communities Survey, high school summary section.
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