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Civil and Criminal Liability for Social Hosting in Marin County, California

Just as several hundred Drake High School students headed to their annual Winter Formal dance on January 25, 2019, some students sought an alternate entertainment option — a house party. Widely publicized on social media, the teen party was no secret, and quickly

became a post-dance destination. Teens arrived to find alcohol and marijuana freely available and the party well under way. By 11pm, Fairfax police were at the scene and soon issued a Social Host Ordinance (SHO) citation to the homeowner. A first offense violation comes with a $750 fine, similar to other areas throughout Marin, all of which have Social Host Ordinance laws.

Meanwhile, back in December at the start of Winter Break, police were called to the scene of intoxicated teenagers on a Corte Madera street. The 18-year old host of the nearby party was located and was cited not only for a SHO violation but for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor". This is a misdemeanor charge and can result in jail time of up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500. Misdemeanors can result in a criminal record which may need to be disclosed in college and employment applications. The case is currently with the Marin District Attorney's Office which will ultimately make the decision to charge the 18-year old host who is considered an adult under the law.

Surprised that you (or your 18-year) could be held responsible for teen substance use at your home? Whether or not you are there? Consider how lightweight that fine seems in comparison with the liability that could result if there are any injuries or accidents that occur as a result of underage substance use at a residence. Criminal charges? Financial exposure greater than your property’s value? “The intent is to protect the public health ... rather than to punish,” states the Fairfax Social Host Ordinance Policy. In Fairfax, 19 citations have been issued in the past seven years. In Corte Madera, that number is higher where the Central Marin Police Authority states that SHOs will be "strictly enforced". Other jurisdictions throughout Marin are stepping up their enforcement as well.

SHOs came into being in Marin in 2006, after two Novato teens died in a car crash having attended a party where kids had been drinking. “We would like to remind both parents and teens that the Social Host Ordinance is being enforced in every city, town, and unincorporated area of Marin County,” stated a Police Department’s post about more recent incidents on When parents hear about the SHO, a wide range of responses start to flow, including everything from, “Thank goodness someone is protecting our children” to, “Hey, who didn’t have a few beers as a teenager? Better to experiment supervised than unsupervised, right?” Unfortunately, many of these responses don’t consider the facts. Here are some of those facts, plus a few questions on this topic you might ask yourself and fellow parents:

  • Whose job is it to protect our children anyway? The police, each child’s own parents, or our parent community together? However you may feel about setting alcohol policy for your own children in your home or out, when is it acceptable to extend your policy to other people’s children without their parents’ consent?

  • What message do teens get when parents participate in illegal behavior by allowing teens to drink alcohol at their home?

  • Substance use affects each teen differently, based on their personal health history, family situation and other genetic and circumstantial factors. While not all substance use leads to a substance “problem”, we know that most (90%) of people who do struggle with a substance problem began using substances before age 18. (Center on Addiction) And that people who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to become alcohol dependent than adults who begin drinking at age 21. (CDC)

  • Labeling ‘teens drinking with adult consent’ as “harmless and healthy experimentation” may be wishful thinking. In reality, the behavior comes at a high risk, associated with “increased risk for heavy episodic drinking alcohol and related problems and drinking and driving.” (NIH)

  • Substance use can set the stage for other party and post-party incidents like alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, other physical violence, and drunk driving, such as it did for the teens whose deaths prompted SHOs to be established.

So what can you do?

  • Keep the lines of communication open: Make it safe for your teen to tell you what they are up to and when they might want your help to be quietly extracted from a situation they find they don’t want to be in, even if it means you will be made aware of activities you wish they were not involved in.

  • Know that anyone can anonymously report a possible SHO violation. So if you don’t want it to happen, report it to your local police department when it does.

  • Let your neighbors know if you will be out of town or out for the night.

  • Stick to your Be The Influence Agreement to host only substance-free parties; make contact with parents of teens who are hosting a party; and not let teens drive if they may be under the influence of substances.

Your experience does not have to be your kids’ experience. Even if your own teen life was not exactly alcohol-free or substance-free, and all has turned out well, don't be hesitant to set limits that seem hypocritical. As parents and the most influential people in our teens’ lives (even as they proclaim indifference and independence), who know more about the effects of substances on the still-developing teen brain than we did before, our role is to use our brains to help our children take care of theirs.

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