Host law faces complications

Alcohol ordinance concerns raised

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Ordinance excerpts

Key sections of a proposed social host ordinance

Prohibition

No person who owns, rents, leases or controls a private residence or private premise shall allow a party or gathering to take place or continue at said residence or on the premises if a minor at the party obtains, possesses or consumes any alcoholic beverage and the person knows or reasonably should know that the minor has obtained, possesses or is consuming alcoholic beverages anywhere on the property or premises under his or her control.

Penalties for violation

Any person over 18 years of age who is found guilty or pleads guilty or nolo contendere in Steamboat Springs Municipal Court to violating this social host ordinance shall be punished by a fine not less than $500 for the first offense, not less than $750 for the second offense and not less than $999 for the third offense; and the person shall be required to perform not less than 24 hours of community service; and the person shall be required to complete an alcohol education program paid for by the offender; and the person may be sentenced to the Routt County Jail for a term of no more than 180 days at the discretion of the Municipal Court Judge.

By the numbers

3 to 10: estimated number of citations that would be issued annually under proposed social host ordinance

18: percentage of Steamboat Mental Health clients who are 12 to 17 years old and seeking substance abuse treatment

18: percentage of Steamboat Springs High School students who reported driving after drinking in the 12 months before a recent survey

40: percentage of SSHS students who reported getting drunk once or more in the two weeks before survey

42: percentage of SSHS students who reported riding once or more with a driver who had been drinking in the 12 months before survey

54: percentage of SSHS students who reported using alcohol once or more in the 30 days before survey

57: percentage of minors nationally who report drinking at friends' homes

74: percentage of SSHS students who reported attending one or more parties where other kids their age were drinking, in the year before survey

170: approximate number of minor-in-possession citations issued by the Steamboat Springs Police Department annually

180: maximum possible jail sentence, in days, under proposed ordinance

$500: minimum fine for violating the proposed ordinance

$999: maximum fine for violating the proposed ordinance

$18,000 to $60,000: estimated additional cost to the Steamboat Springs Municipal Court if proposed ordinance is adopted

Sources: Developmental Assets: A Profile of Our Youth Survey, implemented 2005-06 school year at Steamboat Springs High School; Grand Futures Prevention Coalition on behalf of the Excellence Project; Steamboat Springs Municipal Court; Steamboat Springs Police Department

— A number of logistical challenges must be overcome if Steamboat Springs is to be the first municipality in the state to enact a "social host" ordinance.

The legislation - which was unanimously approved on first reading by the Steamboat Springs City Council last week - would provide penalties for parents and other adults who allow minors to drink in their homes. A well-organized grass-roots effort has turned out in force at public meetings to encourage council to enact the law, which is similar to one that failed in 2006.

Representatives from Colorado Mountain College, the Steamboat Springs Teen Council, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the Steamboat Springs Police Department and the Steamboat Springs School District were among those who spoke in favor of the ordinance at last week's council meeting. The Grand Futures Prevention Coalition is presenting the legislation on behalf of the Excellence Project, a collaboration of local organizations to continually reduce underage drinking and illegal substance abuse.

"There may be a lot of grumbling, but could you imagine having stood up to oppose it?" Councilman Jon Quinn joked Wednesday.

Nonetheless, some are starting to raise concerns with the ordinance's financial and civil liberty impacts, which could complicate matters as the law heads toward its second and final reading.

'Paradigm shift'

"The issue will depend on whether or not the jail time stays in the ordinance," said Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski, who raised some concerns about the proposed social host law at last week's meeting. "That's a huge shift."

Steamboat Springs Municipal Court officials have cited financial and logistical impacts, including increased involvement of legal counsel, a sure increase in the number of jury trials and the need to provide legal representation for indigent defendants.

The ordinance's proponents have removed provisions for mandatory jail time since its initial presentation, and, while jail time still is a possibility, Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae said it is unfair to hold that against the ordinance.

"Our municipal court judge currently has the ability to sentence anybody to jail who comes before him. People have the right to a jury trial right now," Rae said Thursday. "I think it's very minimal (impact).

"To convolute that process simply because we are adding another ordinance which does not change the process is not keeping things in perspective," he continued.

City Attorney Dan Foote acknowledged that the municipal court judge currently has the ability to impose jail time, but Foote maintains his opinion that the social host ordinance would present a "major change" to the court.

"He has the ability to impose jail, but as a matter of practice, the prosecuting attorney doesn't seek jail," Foote said Wednesday. "I think the expectation of the proponents of this ordinance is that it will be taken more seriously than the dog-at-large and urinating in public."

Rae said the Police Department would trust in the municipal court judge to determine whether jail time is appropriate and that, in some circumstances, it may be expected. If the possibility of jail time is stripped from the ordinance, Rae said, it would be less effective.

"The No. 1 deterrent of people committing crimes is the fear of consequences," Rae said, "and that's a fact."

Quinn agreed and said at last week's council meeting that he'd hate to see the ordinance stripped of its "teeth."

"It's clearly a bit of a paradigm shift if we put people in jail for this," Quinn said. "But there's nothing like throwing a parent of a high-schooler in jail."

Municipal court officials have estimated the financial impact of the ordinance on the court at $18,000 to $60,000 annually, a number Rae disagrees with.

"That's a lot of money and a huge shift for three to 10 citations," said Hermacinski, citing Rae's estimate for the number of citations that would be issued annually under the ordinance. Hermacinski suggested the funds might produce greater change if put toward educational purposes.

Other challenges

Requiring violators to complete an alcohol education program presents another logistical challenge for the municipal court, Foote said.

"That's going to require something like a probation department to supervise people and make sure its getting done," Foote said.

The cooperation of the Routt County Sheriff's Office also is no guarantee. Sheriff Gary Wall said that overcrowding and understaffing already are plaguing his jail.

"From a philosophical standpoint, I want to figure out a way to keep people out of jail rather than put them in," Wall said Thursday. "If we start accepting people into the county jail from municipal court, I don't know where that's going to stop. : I'm going to be very reluctant to start incarcerating people who have violated a municipal ordinance."

Wall and Hermacinski raised concerns about other provisions that could make the ordinance vulnerable to abuse. For example, people could be cited under the ordinance not only if they have actual knowledge of underage drinking on their premises, but also if they "reasonably should know," according to the ordinance.

"What does that mean?" Wall asked, citing the example of parents in bed asleep while minors are secretly drinking in their home. "I'm not in favor of teen drinking. I'm absolutely opposed to that. It's not OK. But is this going to have any impact on teen drinking? I don't know if this is the way to stop that, and it looks like it could be abused."

At last week's council meeting, Hermacinski requested, and the rest of council agreed to, adding an exception to the ordinance that would prevent property owners from being cited if minors trespass and drink on their property.

The fact that the law would be the first of its kind in the state is a reason to proceed cautiously, Hermacinski said.

"The issue with it being first is you don't have the benefit of the experience of other municipalities," Foote said. "There wouldn't be a body of case law in Colorado covering how these things are applied. That's a little less guidance than we have in other situations."

Rae predicted it wouldn't be long before similar laws become more common in the state.

"There's over 200 social host ordinances across the country right now," he said. "It's one of the more popular new laws that are sweeping across our country. I think you will see, over the course of the next couple years, that several municipalities will have social host ordinances."

Whether Steamboat Springs leads the charge remains to be seen. Foote said that none of the ordinance's potential problems are insurmountable. Councilman Steve Ivancie said the scrutiny will result in a stronger ordinance in the end.

"Too many times, we act as a council, and we have to come back and fix things," Ivancie said Wednesday. "I very much support this ordinance. I'm happy that we're moving forward. Too many times, these issues are swept under the rug."

Comments

papafu 6 years, 3 months ago

It is obvious according to what is stated in "By the numbers" that underage drinking in our community has gotten out of hand. I'm sure it not only includes high school and middle school students, but also many of the students attending CMC. While I agree that something needs to done to deal with the situation, I am not so sure that the social host ordinance is worth the cost(both monetary and time wise) that it would entail. These underage people who want to drink are going to do so whether at home, at a friends or somewhere out in the woods, along the river, in a car, etc. By passing this ordinance to punish those who knowingly let underage people drink in there homes is a small step in the right direction, it will not solve the underlying problem. If all of the adults in our community would focus more on the issue and work together to address the concern, it would go a long way in dealing with the issue at hand. I wish I knew how to make that happen, but to be honest I don't.

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