Walking a Fine Line: Social Host Laws and Underage Drinking

Blurry beer bottle Cruising Main

I know there are some who never drank alcohol in high school, but I didn't go to school with them. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much. During my junior high and senior high years I lived in a small town in the Texas Panhandle. On weekends, the kids went to football games, cruised up and down Main St. and drank beer at parties. Alcohol was easy to get; someone's older sibling or cousin or an older friend of a friend or a guy at a party was happy to provide it. For the most part, everyone was really careful and always had a designated driver, not that this fact makes it better, safer or more acceptable, but that's just the way it was then and has been for multiple generations.

There were a few times that I was at a party that someone's parents were also in attendance. I was never comfortable with this. I have always thought that a parent should be a parent, not a pal to his or her minor children. When a parent "hosts" a party for his or her minor child and the child's minor friends this is called social hosting.

Social Host Laws

Social hosting refers to someone, not a licensed vendor, who provides alcohol to invitees in a social setting, whether adults or minors. Parents should be aware of the liability, both criminally and civilly, involved in hosting parties where alcohol will be served to minors.

There are 24 states with social host laws; only 7 states with laws aimed specifically at underage drinking. Check this social host laws map on the Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS) site to see whether your state has any such laws. Although not all states have social host laws, it's not legal in any state to provide a minor who is not your child with alcohol. Some states that don't have social host laws have city ordinances making social hosting illegal in particular cities and other areas look to zoning ordinances to stop adults from serving alcohol to minors in their homes.

Criminal and Civil Liability

Social host laws can be criminal or civil in nature. Criminal social host laws make it a crime punishable by monetary fine and/or time in jail to provide alcohol to minors. A person can be found liable for negligence in a private lawsuit brought by a guest provided alcohol or by a person injured by a guest provided alcohol in states with civil social host laws.

According to SocialHost.org, at the local level, cities and counties have at least three options for implementing social host laws:

  1. Infraction. Some municipalities treat social host liability as a criminal matter, but the penalty is, at most, an infraction that carries with it a monetary fine rather than jail time.
  2. Misdemeanor. Some municipalities treat social host liability as a misdemeanor, in the same way some states do, carrying possible jail time as a penalty.
  3. Response Costs Recovery Ordinances. Some municipalities have enacted response costs recovery ordinances. Under these ordinances, offenders face no criminal penalties—no criminal monetary fines or jail time--at all. Instead, these laws declare an underage drinking party on private property a public nuisance, which threatens the public health, safety and general welfare. These ordinances hold persons who own lease or otherwise control the property on which an out of control party occurs (e.g., parents, landowners, tenants, and the party hosts) civilly responsible for the costs of police, fire, or other emergency response services associated with responding multiple times to the location of an underage drinking party.

Tips for Hosting a Party for Minors

If you must host a party that minors will be attending, it's best to do a little planning and rulemaking within your household first. Make sure your child(ren) understand these rules and intend to abide by them. Explain the repercussions for you and your child(ren) should these rules be broken and alcohol (or other illegal substances) be brought into your home and/or consumed there.

YouthBingeDrinking.org provides these tips for planning a teenage party:

  • Discuss the guest list.
  • Establish firm ground rules and expectations before the party and ask your child to communicate them with his/her guests before the event.
  • Limit the number of invitees (by invitation only) and the number who actually attend. Do not allow uninvited guests to attend.
  • Know the ages of partygoers and how they know your child.
  • Make it clear to guests that alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs are not allowed and be sure to provide plenty of snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Have sufficient chaperones to monitor the area and partygoers.
  • Define an area for the party; do not allow partygoers in other areas (e.g., bedrooms, garage).
  • Monitor the party area frequently, as well as areas that are off-limits to guests.
  • Restrict entry and exit areas to deter guests from bringing in contraband.
  • When a guest leaves, do not allow him or her to return. This will discourage guests from leaving to drink or take other drugs and later return under the influence.
  • Establish a signal that your child may use if he or she needs help.
  • Set a beginning and ending time for the party.
  • Determine whether the guests will include both underage people and adults.
  • If both adults and underage youth will be present, decide whether the party areas should be separate.
  • Place valuables such as weapons, alcohol, and breakable objects in a secure area.
  • Establish an area for coats and bags that can be closely monitored.
  • Be prepared to call a guest's parents if the child appears to be under the influence or brings alcohol or other drugs to the party.

Here are some tips to prevent a teenage party from occurring if you are not at your house:

  • If you are going to be away for longer than an evening, call your neighbors and give them the phone numbers where you can be reached.
  • Call the parents of your teen's close friends to let them know that you'll be gone and what is permitted at your home during your absence.
  • Have a responsible adult (relative, friend, neighbor) supervise your teen and your house while you're away.
  • If your teen throws a party anyway, pre-arrange for a neighbor to call the police to shut down the party if things get out of control. Tell your teen you have done this.

The Scoop

Even if you think it's alright and it's legal to allow your own child to drink in your home, think twice about doing it. Condoning underage drinking can lead your child to drink alcohol even when you are not around. This could lead to your child drinking and driving or providing other minors with alcohol without you knowing it. And you certainly never want to give alcohol to a minor who's not your child. If that minor was injured in an accident or injured another in an accident after drinking alcohol that you supplied, you could be in a heap of trouble.

What's your experience with underage drinking? What's your stance on providing your child with alcohol in your own home? How will you or do you handle the issue of teenagers and alcohol? On Friday, I will post a bit of Motherly Advice. Over and out…


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