Justice Is Unequal for Parents Who Host Teen Drinking Parties

Olga Teape, with a photo of her teenage son, sued the couple she blames for his death in a drunken-driving crash. The suit was rejected by Virginia courts.
Olga Teape, with a photo of her teenage son, sued the couple she blames for his death in a drunken-driving crash. The suit was rejected by Virginia courts. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

When police showed up recently at a Walt Whitman High School graduation party, three young people were drinking in a vehicle parked outside the Bethesda home. Then three more teenagers walked up with a six-pack in a bag. While the police were dealing with them, the mother came outside, saw the officers and ran back in.

Montgomery County police wrote dozens of citations against the minors who were found to have been drinking at the party. The party-hosting parents were given two civil citations each, carrying fines of up to $1,500 per infraction.

The outcome for the Bethesda parents was considerably less severe than for a Charlottesville area mother and stepfather who recently began serving 27-month jail sentences for hosting an underage drinking party. In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.

The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties. Even at a time of strong concern about youth drinking and drunken driving, police and prosecutors say parents in the Washington region are rarely held responsible -- criminally or civilly -- for allowing teenagers to gather at their homes and consume alcohol. That's in large part because it's difficult to prove that the adults provided alcohol or condoned its use.

The issue is becoming more urgent, police say, as more parents, fearing their teenagers will drink anyway, allow alcohol at home to keep the youths off the roads and out of trouble. In both the Bethesda and Charlottesville area cases, the parents had collected teens' car keys to ensure that nobody drove after drinking. The Virginia mother acknowledged buying the alcohol for the party.

"They were fully aware of the party and knew what was going on," Sgt. Tim Kwaloff, head of the Montgomery police Alcohol Enforcement Unit, said of the Bethesda parents. "More and more parents think they'd rather have their kids drinking at home than not know where they are."

Stacy Saetta of the Center for the Study of Law and Enforcement Policy, a California-based research center studying alcohol policy, said the parties are getting larger and can involve "hundreds of kids in this new Internet era of text-messaging, MySpacing and instant communication."

"Some of these parents are hosting these parties out of the goodness of their hearts," Saetta said. "They think they're doing the best thing [by] keeping them at home. But there's just too many dangers present when you get a bunch of young people together with money, with alcohol and with cars."

The recent season of proms, graduations and beach weeks -- all rites of passage in American culture -- took place amid an increase in binge drinking by teens and a rise in the number of young people killed by drunken-driving crashes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And research shows that the younger the minor, the more likely the alcohol was provided by an adult.

Law enforcement authorities see no easy solution to the problem.

Raymond F. Morrogh, deputy commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax County, said charging parents is difficult because authorities are coming into "contact with people not usually involved in criminal activities."

"Also, you've got to have hard proof," he said. "We deal in evidence."

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