April 20, 2012

Underage drinking: What's the host liability?

When I was guest speaker at a high-school health class in a preventive program about underage drinking recently, I was asked, "What's the most trouble you can get into if you host a party that gets busted for underage drinking?"

The answer is that it is a lot worse than you think, whether a parent is the host or a teenager.

In New York state, anyone who provides alcohol to someone under 21, except their own child, can be charged with the misdemeanor of unlawfully dealing with a child. A conviction results in a criminal record and carries up to one year in jail or three years on probation.

Many times, allowing your own child under age 17 to drink could be charged under a different misdemeanor, endangering the welfare of a child, which has the same sentences.


The drinking age in New York is 21, but once a person turns 16, he or she can be charged criminally for breaking the law. This may not seem fair, but it means that teens who are underage themselves can be charged with unlawfully dealing with a child for providing alcohol to another teen. The law is broken whether you charge money for the alcohol or give it away.

As Plattsburgh City Court judge, I saw kids charged under this law when they had parties and teenage friends drank beer, even when the teens helped themselves to it.

Certainly, the underage drinker is responsible for his own behavior. So, a kid who drives away from the party after drinking could be arrested for driving while intoxicated. New York has a "zero tolerance" law that makes it against the law for anyone under 21 to drive with as low as 0.02 percent of blood alcohol content. If the content is 0.02 to 0.07 for a driver under 21, though, in many cases the charge can be handled administratively rather than through the criminal court. Anyone caught driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher will be charged in court with misdemeanor DWI.

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