Here’s the scenario: You leave a six-pack in the refrigerator and go out for the evening. Your kids and their friends decide to make those beers disappear.
If that happens, you could soon face a fourth-degree misdemeanor negligence charge under a new ordinance being weighed by Amherst city council.
Aimed at tanking underage drinking parties — especially those around prom and graduation time — the proposal was made Monday by Amherst police Lt. Mark Cawthon on behalf of the Amherst Community Task Force.
He asked for “social host” legislation similar to what’s been adopted in Elyria, which punishes parents who turn a blind eye to teen drinking.
Cawthon said parents, when confronted about parties, often claim ignorance and say they didn’t know teens had poured themselves drinks. That makes it harder to prosecute those parents under state laws.
The task force wants parents to take “reasonable steps” to stop people under 21 from getting access to alcohol — like locking it up, removing all alcohol from the premises while they are away, or having a friend or neighbor check on teens who are left home alone.
“The bottom line is be a parent and not a host,” Cawthon said, initially asking for second-degree misdemeanor charges, which would carry up to a $750 fine and 90 days jail time.
But the city’s legal counsel was hesitant about the proposal.
Law director Tony Pecora said he personally bristles at the idea of criminalizing negligent conduct, especially with second-degree status, which he called “serious, not a slap on the wrist.”
Pecora repeatedly said he has beer in his own refrigerator and it’s hard to imagine holding a parent responsible if an underage person got into it. He said that’s holding parents to a different legal standard than, for example, if they bought a case of beer and made it readily accessible knowing their kids were planning a party.
City prosecutor Frank Carlson suggested lowering the charge for negligence to a fourth-degree misdemeanor, which would mean up to a $250 fine and 30 days jail time.
At his request, council amended the proposed ordinance to also include a second-degree misdemeanor charge for parental recklessness, which he defined as allowing underage drinking “with wanton disregard for the consequences.”
Carlson also pointed out that Oberlin Municipal Court judge Thomas Januzzi refuses to give jail time to offenders who break local city ordinances, favoring fines and community service instead.
Council debated penalties for minors found drinking, including suspending their driver’s license or preventing them from getting one for six months.
At the urging of Pecora and Carlson, officials leaned toward letting the juvenile court decide that on a case-by-case basis — especially since that court will likely ignore local laws in favor of state statute anyway.
Timothy Williams is coordinator for Communities That Care of Lorain County, a nonprofit that pays for Amherst police sting operations at stores that sell alcohol. Those undercover jobs usually result in charges for clerks who sell to underage buyers.
He praised council’s willingness to, in a 6-1 vote, move the proposed drinking penalties ordinance forward.
“I know law enforcement wants teeth and I think you’ve given them teeth,” Williams said.
“We’re not going to allow people to claim, ‘We didn’t know,’ and it’s holding people accountable,” he said. “It’s not about the extreme but being practical and reasonable.”
Williams said that in anonymous surveys, a very large number of Amherst Steele High School students have reported drinking and using other drugs. Alcohol is the number one vice with marijuana in second place.
Council is expected to cast several more votes in coming weeks before deciding on the proposal.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst police Lt. Mark Cawthon asks for tougher charges against parents who turn a blind eye to drinking parties.
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