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Adults who allow teen drinking now face fines

Woodbury parents who allow underage drinking in their homes will no longer be let off the hook.

A new ordinance City Council adopted this month will cite parents or guardians with misdemeanors if the adults are knowingly and willingly allowing underage drinking.

The "social host" ordinance is a common standard used by many communities across the state. It's aimed at dealing with some of the loopholes that state laws often leave.

Though most parents know how to deal with situations where their children have access to alcohol, Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague said there are always a few homes in every city that become a "safe haven" for underage drinking.

"And it's frustrating. It's difficult for us to deal with sometimes if you end up going again and again," he added.

According to state laws, those who furnish alcohol to minors are obviously breaking the law, but courts have ruled that allowing a party where the owners or parents knew minors were consuming alcohol is not illegal.

They're not committing any crimes by not taking the alcohol away from minors or by failing to stop the party, according to the statute.

"If there is concern at all about the fact that we're going to overuse this ordinance, we're not," Vague said. "It's really specific to people who are knowingly letting this type of activity go on in their house. And if you are and we get called to your house, you should expect to get cited."

A misdemeanor citation can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. Minors would also be cited for underage consumption.

The ordinance is not expected to solve everything, however. Law enforcement officials said it's just another tool in the books.

"What we find is that some of these houses, the parents know it's going on. In some cases the parents are even home and they're allowing this type of activity to go on," Vague said. "I just really think that's incredibly misguided."

But some of those under the age of 21 will always try to find an empty house where parents are away as a place to party.

In that case, police wouldn't cite parents if they had no idea what was going on.

"I don't blame parents for that," Vague said, "but they just basically need to do their job as parents and that's what we're asking them to do."

Woodbury City Council received a letter explaining some of the reasoning behind the need to adopt the social host ordinance. The Public Safety Department cited research that shows a strong correlation between youth alcohol use and violence, risky sexual behavior, poor school performance and suicide.

"Evidence shows that adolescent drinking can inflict permanent damage on the developing brain," the letter continued. "Early onset drinking is associated with greater levels of alcohol problems in adulthood."

Woodbury is following in the footsteps of neighboring city Cottage Grove, which adopted its own social host ordinance in March 2010.

Cottage Grove Public Safety Director Craig Woolery said officers issued a total of three citations in 2010 and one so far in 2011 for violating the social host ordinance.

"In the scope of things, it's not that many," he added. "But we also found that the parties were better handled because people were aware of this."

Woolery advises parents to take reasonable steps when hosting parties where various age groups are present.

He said controlling the quantity of alcohol and supervising teens are two of the most important steps.

Considering how fast news travels through text messages nowadays, most of the kids who cause trouble are the uninvited ones who happen to find out about the parties, Woolery said.

Many cities across Minnesota started adopting social host ordinances beginning in 2007, and the remaining Washington County cities are expected to adopt their own in the coming months.

"It'll probably get to the point where every city in the county will have very similar ordinances to kind of create that safety net," Vague said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.