City’s social host law remains unused weapon in police arsenal

By Carolyn Cole
Published on June 5, 2008

Mustang police have made no arrests under the city’s social host ordinance, which was adopted almost a year ago to target underage drinking.

Two people were arrested in separate social host incidents in Yukon, which adopted a similar ordinance a few weeks after Mustang’s Council approved it.

Mustang Police Capt. Willard James said his city’s officers have not encountered an incident that fits the social host criteria, but they have detained several teenagers on complaints of minor in possession of alcohol or beer in incidents in area parks.

“They have all been educated in that additional ordinance and aware of what it will take as far as a prosecution on that ordinance,” James said.

Under Mustang’s social host ordinance, a person in control of a gathering or party — at least three people — where alcohol is consumed by anyone less than age 21 is culpable for that crime, which is punishable by 10 days in jail and a $750 fine. A person is defined as anyone age 16 and older.

A group of concerned parents meeting as Mustang’s Prevention Coalition brought concerns about underage drinking to police and city officials. Two-thirds of Canadian County high school sophomores and more than three-quarters of seniors reported drinking alcohol in the 2006 Oklahoma Prevention Needs Assessment Report. According to the study, youth on average received their first drink at age 13.

Jamie Pacific, director of the Red Rock West Area Prevention Resource Center, serving Canadian and Grady counties said that is reason enough to sound the alarm. Studies have linked problems such as teen pregnancy, increased risk of dropping out of high school, domestic abuse, depression and suicide with underage drinking. Other studies link addiction later in life to early alcohol use, and officials believe the drugs have adverse effects on a youth’s developing brain.

Dozens of communities have joined Mustang and Yukon in adopting social hosts ordinances, including Edmond, Tecumseh, McAlester, Duncan, Elgin, Moore, Laverne, Owasso, Tulsa, Ponca City, Shawnee, Weatherford, Broken Arrow, Enid, Bixby, Midwest City, Alva, Clinton, Buffalo and Elk City.

Pacific said the ordinance gives police another tool to target underage drinking. In communities that haven’t adopted the social host language, including Oklahoma City, officers’ only recourse is to send the sober youth home and release the drunk minors to their family.

“It makes their jobs easier so minors have the least amount of access to alcohol as possible,” she said. “It’s a step in the right direction, toward making our minors healthier.”

Oklahoma lawmakers passed by a push to adopt a social hosts law statewide this past session, but Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, one of the measure’s authors, said he plans to revive the effort next spring.

“Where you live should not matter,” he said. “The law should be across the board for everyone who lives in the state, not just in incorporated areas.”
Morgan said he became a social host law proponent after a Tulsa mother asked for his help. Her son died from alcohol poisoning after drinking at a party, he said, and she begged lawmakers to do whatever they could to keep other teenagers’ from making her son’s mistake.
Morgan said he sees a relation to the graduated driver license law, which he helped author — it’s a matter of protecting Oklahoma’s youth.

“It’s a violation of state law whether done at home or in a bar somewhere,” he said, of underage drinking.
The bill’s opponents voiced concern regarding a third violation being considered a felony, because it would be tried in district court. Morgan said he considers a repeat social host violator to be similar to a second or third offense of the driving under influence of alcohol law, adding he believes the crime should be a felony. However, he said he could compromise to push an Oklahoma social host proposal through the Legislature.
Right now, social host ordinances only exist in a few cities and are tried by municipal courts, which are not always recorded on an offender’s record.

“If the state were to adopt it,” he said, “it would be the per view of district attorney to enforce it.”

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