Underage drinking parties scrutinized

Posted 7/12/11

The council recently rejected a proposed ordinance that sought to hold hosts responsible for allowing house parties where alcohol or drugs are provided to those under 21.

Wyoming law already prohibits such parties for minors under 18, but it …

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Underage drinking parties scrutinized


Council rejects social hosting ordinance

Should local residents face criminal penalties if they knowingly host a party where young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 consume alcohol or drugs?

The Powell City Council is split 2-5 on its answer to that question.

The council recently rejected a proposed ordinance that sought to hold hosts responsible for allowing house parties where alcohol or drugs are provided to those under 21.

Wyoming law already prohibits such parties for minors under 18, but it leaves a loophole for those between the ages of 18-21, said Powell Police Chief Tim Feathers.

The failed city ordinance was nearly identical to the existing Wyoming law except that it closed that loophole by specifying “minor” as those under the age of 21, Feathers said.

Other cities in Wyoming, including Buffalo and Cheyenne, have adopted similar ordinances, so residents who host parties where alcohol is served to people younger than 21 can be fined in a municipal court. Powell’s failed ordinance sought to fine party hosts up to $750 for the would-be misdemeanor offense.

In local house parties where police were called, 71 percent of underage drinkers were between the ages of 18-21, compared to 29 percent who were 18 and younger, according to Powell Police Department data.

Councilmen who voted against the ordinance indicated they think the state law is sufficient and that there doesn’t need to be a local ordinance strengthening it.

“It seems like to raise that age to 21 puts a lot of pressure on anybody who has people over to their house to know the exact age of the people in their house,” Councilman John Wetzel said, adding that college students would have to start carding their friends when hosting parties in their homes.

College students aren’t “going to keep track if someone has a birthday or didn’t have a birthday … I can understand why they would go with 18 on the state statute versus 21,” he said.

Wetzel said a host may know the ages of most of their friends, but if someone slips in who is under 21, “it puts a heavy onus on a kid who is just renting a house and going to school.”

Councilman Jim Hillberry also opposed the ordinance.

“We’re adding more burden back on an individual and an individual’s rights, and I’m just not in favor of this,” said Hillberry. “We already have enough of Big Brother taking care of us … we can’t protect everybody 100 percent of the time.”

The failed ordinance read: “No person who owns, rents, leases, subleases or has control of any residence or premises shall allow a house party to take place at the residence or premises if any alcoholic liquor, malt beverage or drug prohbited by law be possessed by any person under the age of 21 years ...”

The proposed law would have made exceptions for minors under 21 who consume alcohol furnished by their parents or as part of a religious observance. The proposed ordinance would only apply in situations where it’s unlawful for minors to possess or consume alcohol, Feathers said.

“Those safeguards are built in,” Feathers said. “It’s only geared toward social hosting.”

Councilman Floyd Young, who supported the ordinance, said terrible things have happened after underage drinking parties.

The proposed ordinance may not stop the behavior altogether, but it would “at least make them aware of it,” Young said.

Young, who works at Northwest College, referenced a situation last year when college students who were drinking got into a fight that involved weapons.

“They started out at a house party. A lot of people came, and it caused a lot of grief,” Young said. “This would make them think about it.”

Young also said there’s a major difference in the way 18- and 19-year-olds party versus those who are 21 or 22.

“There’s just a lot of difference in the way they handle things,” Young said.

Members of the Park County Coalition Against Substance Abuse say it’s important to close the loophole to address underage drinking for minors under 21.

Without the law to close the loophole, “police departments are saying, ‘our hands are tied. This is a gray area,’” said Sarah Mikesell-Growney, a prevention specialist with the Prevention and Wellness Office at West Park Hospital.

Mikesell-Growney is a member of the Park County Coalition Against Substance Abuse. Following the council’s rejection of the proposed law last month, coalition members plan to meet with city councilmen to discuss why they believe the ordinance is necessary.

“Almost all of Park County residents — 94 percent — believe that adults who supply alcohol to youth under the age of 21 should be prosecuted,” said Mikesell-Growney, referencing results from the Wyoming Alcohol Use Survey.

Oftentimes at house parties, underage drinkers do not say who provided the alcohol, so no one is cited for furnishing alcohols to minors — and the host of the party can’t be held accountable if drinkers fall in that 18-21 age range, Feathers said.

“The chief difference is, (with a social hosting ordinance) we don’t have to prove who furnished the alcohol,” Feathers said. “It allows us to deal with the party issue.”

It’s a recurring issue at some residences, he said. Most times, parties create a disturbance in the neighborhood, “which is why we’re called there in the first place,” Feathers said.

Some councilmen showed concern that the proposed ordinance would give Powell police officers more authority to enter a person’s home.

“I’ve had Officer Miner in my backyard uninvited at times and I was home, so I don’t really see the need to give them another excuse to come into the house,” Councilman Wetzel said during last month’s meeting.

The social hosting ordinance wouldn’t change anything when it comes to police officers’ ability to enter a residence, Feathers said in a later interview.

“That’s an issue that’s governed by the Fourth Amendment,” Feathers said. “This doesn’t take away your Fourth Amendment rights … the home is the most highly protected area.”

“The only thing this is doing is making it unlawful to host the party where minors under 21 consume alcohol,” he added.

A social hosting ordinance would align with Powell’s community-developed alcohol guidelines, Mikesell-Growney said.

One of those guidelines reads: “We believe underage drinking in a social context — outside of the immediate family structure (parent/guardian and child) — is illegal and should be strictly enforced, including the detection and apprehension of individuals that furnish alcohol to people under 21 years of age.”

“Powell — with the blessing of the City Council — adopted those guidelines last November,” Mikesell-Growney said.

Councilmen Young and Don Hillman supported the social hosting ordinance. Voting against it were councilmen Hillberry, Wetzel, Myron Heny, Steve Scott and Mayor Scott Mangold.

“Let’s revisit it. I’ll go ‘no,’ but I think we need to discuss it and take a look at it,” Mayor Mangold said after the council’s vote.