Why Social Host Liability Ordinances
Alcohol is the primary drug of choice for adolescents and teens. Unfortunately, as a result, this group of people has a much higher likelihood of becoming crime victims, as well as a higher potential to be involved in automobile accidents. In Minnesota, minors are prohibited from consuming alcohol; however, the volume of alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities involving minors continues to rise.
In efforts to address this growing problem, several cities in the state have enacted social host liability ordinances (Minn. Stat. § 340A.90) to deter underage drinking parties and hold individuals who illicitly provide minors with alcohol accountable and criminally responsible if a minor to whom they served alcohol commits a crime or is involved in an automobile accident. More specifically, social host ordinances criminalize cultivating an environment where underage drinking occurs, regardless of who provides the alcohol. These laws are, essentially, an outgrowth of pre-existing dram shop liability laws that criminalize selling alcohol to minors under the age of 21.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and this is no different. If a minor under the age of 21 imbibed alcohol in his home, in the company of his parents, for a legally protected religious purpose, then there is no liability. Generally, minors who consume alcohol in situations like these do not drink to the point of becoming dangerously intoxicated.
Background of the Ordinance
In 2007, a Chaska police officer expressed his concerns about underage drinking and minors’ increased potential harm after a 19-year-old died while walking home from a party where underage drinking occurred. He fell, hit his head, and subsequently died before being discovered by a snowplow driver. Because there were no social host liability ordinances at the time, the host of the party could not be charged in the victim’s death.
As a result, ordinances that hold party hosts responsible have been emerging across the state. Under the law, hosts, residents, and/or property owners of properties where underage drinking gatherings occur may be held criminally responsible if a minor who consumed alcohol at the party damages property or harms someone else, regardless of who supplied the alcohol. This law extends to rental tenants and roommates as well—even if the roommate was not home at the time—provided he or she had knowledge of the party and that there would be underage drinking but did nothing about it. Thus, the liability extends not just for knowing about and condoning the gathering but also where the defendant should have known.
Violation of the state’s social host liability ordinance is a misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Those convicted under this law may also face problems with their insurance company, be held civilly liable for any damage to another’s property or harm to another person, and face the possibility of being charged with additional, more serious, criminal offenses.
What Can Hosts Do To Protect Themselves?
Being a responsible host means:
- Knowing the age of all guests
- Controlling the quantity of and access to alcohol
- Supervising minors
- Reporting violations
- Turning away uninvited “guests,” especially drunk ones
- Being courteous to neighbors
Many jurisdictions report that social host liability ordinances have, in fact, deterred teenage drinking parties. According to MADD Minnesota, similar legislation has been passed in 109 cities and 22 counties. Most recently, Polk County became the 23rd county to adopt such an ordinance in July 2016.
State colleges such as the University of Minnesota provide incoming students with social host liability information in orientation packets. Additionally, some counties such as Scott County have noticed a dramatic decrease in social host ordinance prosecutions. In 2013, Scott County only prosecuted 13 citations.