New city underage-drinking law targets parents

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Starting next month, Mercer Island parents will be held responsible for underage drinking at their homes even if they are out of town and unaware it is happening.

The recently passed “social host” ordinance, believed to be the first of its kind in the state, will take effect Jan. 13. The measure imposes a $250 fine on those who own, rent or lease property where teenage drinking has occurred.

It is already illegal for adults to provide alcohol to minors or for parents to let their underage children drink. The new ordinance takes the idea of parent responsibility a step further, City Councilmember Mike Cero said.

“What makes this different is that the parents don’t have to have any knowledge of wrongdoing to be held accountable,” he said. “They could be in Timbuktu (and) have no knowledge of alcohol being consumed.”

Cero acknowledged the measure is an extreme step, but he said the need to fight underage drinking outweighed concerns about infringement on personal liberties. He argued that parents have a duty to make sure their children are acting safely.

The ordinance, based on similar measures in Northern California, could inspire other Washington cities to follow suit, said Stacey Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Washington state Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“They’ve really done the legwork,” Rhodes said. “It was a very tedious process to go through.”

That process included more than two years of work, Cero said. He added that he and his colleagues were pushed to act by the city’s Communities That Care project, which works to prevent young people from using alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Parents and teenagers in the affluent community of 23,000 expressed varying opinions about the ordinance.

Allie Ritcey, a junior at Mercer Island High School, said she agrees with the intent of the measure but isn’t sure it’s fair for parents to be held responsible for things their kids and their kids’ friends do without their knowledge. Teenagers are old enough to be accountable for their own actions, she said.

The 16-year-old also argued it’s safer to drink at a parent’s home than “in some old parking lot somewhere,” because drinking and driving is less likely.

“It’s not something that I think is ever going to go away completely, so you might as well be really safe doing it so nobody gets hurt,” she said.

Maryellen Johnson, who has children in middle and elementary schools on Mercer Island, disagreed.

“It’s a fallacy to think that children are safe because they’re drinking in one’s home,” said Johnson, who contended the fine imposed by the ordinance is not high enough. “They also get in a car and drive somewhere. And they’re at risk not only to themselves but to others.”

As for concerns about fairness, Johnson said, parents’ responsibility does not stop when they leave town.

“If you were out of the country and something happened and you got held responsible, I bet it wouldn’t ever happen again,” she said.

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