I recently attended a very informative panel discussion on underage drinking sponsored by the Health and Wellness Committee of the Bronxville School. Two of the village’s police officers were panelists sharing their expertise from the law enforcement vantage point.
Given its importance, I thought information on the topic from the legal perspective would be worth repeating for even wider dissemination.
The laws pertaining to underage drinking are quite strict. As example, in 2008 the Westchester County Legislature passed a “Social Host” law. In essence, it states that any adult who knowingly allows a party or gathering where minors are present and drinking alcohol – or becoming aware that minors are drinking on their premises – and fails to take action can be punished by fine and/or imprisonment. First time offenders are fined $250 with the amount increasing per incident to a $1,000 fine and/or up to one year imprisonment. In addition, if someone who consumed alcohol on your property injures someone while driving, civil liabilities attach as well as criminal charges if it is determined that you should have known of their behavior.
Merchants selling alcohol to a minor can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a wide range of fines and up to one year in jail. However, under a provision in the same law, a “seller” or “giver” of alcoholic beverages to a minor can be a 16-year-old handing a beer to his 19-year-old friend and the same penalties apply.
On the local level, Bronxville like most other communities, has an Open Container Law with violators subject to fines from $25 to $250, 30 hours of community service and mandatory attendance at a MADD meeting with stricter penalties for repeat offenders. However, concurrently, under an applicable Alcoholic State Beverage Control Law, the punishment is the same but there is no requirement that the container be open or even physically in one’s hand. Everyone under the age of 21 at a party or in a car where alcohol is present can be deemed violating the law. Not drinking is not a defense. This is a classic case of guilt by association. It is also important to note that the state has a zero tolerance policy for drivers under 21 impaired by alcohol. Any level of impairment subjects the driver to a DMV hearing and possible license revocation.
In addition, our police force does “integrity checks” on all village businesses that serve or sell alcohol and I am gratified to report that they were all law abiding at last check.
Our police department’s current emphasis is on training officers to earn specialization in youth services. In the past, we had one officer so trained and now we have six who work very closely with the school, students and families to assist in youth issues of all varieties, not just underage drinking. Parents are encouraged to call the department and collaborate with offices on prevention strategies
The above laws are strict to be sure and the police are sworn to uphold the law but at the same time local police departments have some discretion in eventual disposition and punishment.
In the house party situations, village officers are most concerned with determining the source of the alcohol and work cooperatively with neighboring jurisdictions to ascertain the point of sale.
Our department has viewed formal charges that introduce a child to the court system as their last punishment resort, fully understanding the long term implications of arrest and prosecution. Their paramount concern is the safety of our youth and educating them that their poor choices have consequences. The most disheartening scenario for our officers is bringing someone to the police station one Friday night only to see him or her out the next Friday night exhibiting the same behavior.
The most positive end result of apprehension by the police for underage drinking is a partnership with the parents to educate the underage drinker along with restitution of any damaged property and hours of community service.
The most dangerous situations are those when friends all have been drinking but one is in particular extremis requiring medical attention. Youngsters will often call 911 but then leave the scene fearing their own prosecution. The result is often precious minutes lost as EMTs and police look for the exact location of the child often in the dark. There have been cases of youngsters found in snow banks and hypothermic here in the village. In late 2011, the New York State Legislature passed a “911 Good Samaritan Law” specifically to address this dangerous issue. The law seeks to encourage youngsters to call 911, remain with their friend until help arrives and hold the caller harmless, thereby averting a possible tragedy.
We must encourage our village youth to lookout for each other in every situation and we as adults must be vigilant in caring for them all as they are the village’s most precious resource.