Underage drinking in private homes leads to drunk driving, drownings, sexual assaults

Issue May 2011 By Richard P. Campbell

Sadly, alcohol abuse and sexual misbehavior begins among underage drinkers long before college years. In just a single week in April 2011, Plainville police arrested 52 underage drinkers (many of whom were minors) at a dress up theme party entitled "Business Hoes and CEO's," and Cohasset police arrested 10 minors who had broken into an empty home and used it as a party house.

The problem is not just with minors; it rests with parents who coddle them, provide venues for illegal behavior, and dismiss law enforcement as misguided.

Prom and graduation season is soon upon us and, inexorably, with it comes an uptick in arrests, injuries and deaths caused by underage drinking.

So what if underage persons want to ruin their lives? Let them have at it. And, if individuals with control over their environments (campuses, dormitories and homes), choose to allow underage drinking parties, why should we care?

But, you see, it isn't just them. It is about us as well.

We walk the streets as they drive drunk or are impaired by drugs. Neil Bornstein and Trista Zink were perfectly innocent teenage kids walking hand-in-hand across the street from Newburyport High School when Billy White smashed into them, killing Trista and leaving Neil severely brain injured.

We drive cars on the same roads. Ellen Englehart was on duty as a state trooper when Billy Senne, driving drunk from a house party in Wayland, crashed into her cruiser. She "lives" in a permanent semi-comatose state.

We are parents who allow our kids to go to friends' houses or to "sleep-overs" in blissful ignorance of what the hosts permit. Alexis Garcia shared a bottle of vodka that her friend's father gave his daughter as a birthday present. She drowned in a bathtub.

The rule of law is more than a catchphrase. It is the cornerstone of a safe and secure society that affords its citizens reasonably predictable dealings with the government, institutions, businesses and each other. The rule of law shapes and defines our culture, effectively establishing the dividing line between right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, permitted and forbidden. The rule of law is often expressed in criminal statutes with explicit ranges of penalties that include incarceration and monetary fines. Criminal prosecutions, however, are variable, depending on timely report of the crime, police willingness to arrest the accused, and discretionary decisions by the district attorney.

Under G.L. c. 138, §. 34 (the criminal social host statute) a person is deemed to have furnished alcohol to underage persons if he or she knowingly allows them to possess alcohol on premises under their control. Criminal liability, therefore, centers not on the control of the alcohol, but instead on control of the venue where the misbehavior takes place.

Civil law must keep pace with the criminal law. It makes no sense whatsoever that a violator of the criminal social host statute could be jailed for his conduct but nonetheless bear no civil liability for damages proximately caused by that exact same behavior if the social host did not physically furnish the alcohol.

The results that right thinking adults should demand - diminished underage drinking; avoidance of severe injuries, preventable deaths and sexual assaults, and maintenance of healthy lifestyles and homes - mandate that tort liability play an important role. Civil liability for injuries and damages proximately caused by any person (including colleges and universities) who knowingly allows underage persons to possess alcohol on premises controlled by him or her is essential. Persons violating the law should neither avoid liability nor escape the full brunt of the damages they substantially cause by blaming the underage drinker whose injuries or death was facilitated by their misconduct.

Richard P. Campbell is the founder and chairman of Campbell, Campbell, Edwards & Conroy PC. He is the president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association.