Every Friday and Saturday night in the Twin Cities, police from Minneapolis and St. Paul respond to calls about noise complaints and disruptive behavior, and make arrests for underage drinking, often at house parties. Despite the police responses, underage drinking continues to be a constant problem. St. Paul police officer Paul Schnell summed up the problem with the current laws by saying, “We can’t arrest our way out of underage consumption.” In response to the continuing problem, St. Paul’s city council passed a social host ordinance on October 14.
Social host ordinances make it a misdemeanor to host or allow an event where underage drinking occurs. The social host ordinance offers a way for law enforcement to place blame on one individual, the one who organized and hosted the party or event where underage drinking is occurring, without having to prove the direct provision of alcohol to a minor. The maximum penalty would a $700 fine and up to nine days in jail.
Throughout the years police and neighborhood watch organizations have pushed for laws that restrict the ability and increase the penalties for underage drinking. Despite the laws, a discrepancy persists between the number of arrests and citations for underage drinking and the actual amount of underage drinking that police believe is happening. This discrepancy arises from the common situation of two police officers being dispatched to investigate a house party of 50 to 100 people. Although they are able to give citations to a few of the underage partygoers, the number is simply too high for the police to control the situation and properly cite all who are drinking illegally. Schnell and others believe a social host ordinance could act as a tool to target the source of underage drinking, thereby decreasing it.
An October 7 public hearing at the St Paul City Hall to addressed the social host ordinance in Saint Paul. Many people at the hearing raised questions about laws that are already on the books, such as laws against furnishing alcohol to a minor. Other existing laws hold landlords responsible for “party houses” or other constant disruptions on their properties. These laws do not specifically target underage drinking at these houses.
Schnell and others at the public hearing said social host ordinances are needed as a deterrent against holding parties where underage drinking is allowed to happen.
Jean Mulvey, a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Minnesota, said social host ordinances show “it’s important to address the how and where the problem takes place,” not simply what the problem is. Both Schnell and Mulvey believe a social host ordinance will cause hosts of parties where underage drinking may happen to police the parties more carefully themselves and stop the problem of underage drinking at the source, because it will be the host who is penalized for any underage drinking that occurs at the party.
A few people spoke in favor of the social host ordinance and there was no one there who spoke against it. Mulvey and Schnell both expressed confidence in the passage of the ordinance.