Washington City’s New Underage-Drinking Law Targets Parents

December 27, 2011

Starting next month, Mercer Island parents will be held responsible for underage drinking at their homes even if they are out of town and unaware it is happening.

The recently passed “social host” ordinance is believed to be the first of its kind in the state and some are hoping the idea will spread across Washington, The Seattle Times reported in Sunday’s newspaper. Starting on Jan. 13, people who own, rent or lease property where teenage drinking happens can be fined $250.

It is already illegal for adults to provide alcohol to minors or for parents to let their underage children drink. City Councilmember Mike Cero says the new ordinance takes the idea of parent responsibility a step further.

“What makes this different is that the parents don’t have to have any knowledge of wrongdoing to be held accountable,” he said. “They could be in Timbuktu (and) have no knowledge of alcohol being consumed.”

While acknowledging the ordinance is a bit extreme, Cero said that’s what’s required because concerns about underage drinking outweigh the possible infringement on personal liberties. He argued parents have a duty to make sure their children are acting safely.

The ordinance, based on similar measures in Northern California, could inspire other Washington cities to follow suit, said Stacey Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Washington state Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“They’ve really done the legwork,” Rhodes said. “It was a very tedious process to go through.”

Parents and teenagers in the affluent island community of 23,000 in Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue expressed varying opinions about the ordinance.

Allie Ritcey, a junior at Mercer Island High School, said she agrees with the intent of the measure but isn’t sure it’s fair for parents to be held responsible for things their kids and their kids’ friends do without their knowledge. Teenagers are old enough to be accountable for their own actions, she said.

The 16-year-old also argued it’s safer to drink at a parent’s home than “in some old parking lot somewhere,” because drinking and driving is less likely.

“It’s not something that I think is ever going to go away completely, so you might as well be really safe doing it so nobody gets hurt,” she said.

Maryellen Johnson, who has children in middle and elementary schools on Mercer Island, disagreed.

“It’s a fallacy to think that children are safe because they’re drinking in one’s home,” said Johnson, who contended the fine imposed by the ordinance is not high enough. “They also get in a car and drive somewhere. And they’re at risk not only to themselves but to others.”

As for concerns about fairness, Johnson said, parents’ responsibility does not stop when they leave town.

“If you were out of the country and something happened and you got held responsible, I bet it wouldn’t ever happen again,” she said.

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