Waseca police say in the five years since the city enacted a law commonly known as the social host ordinance, officers have come across far fewer underage drinking parties.
Though some residents are still not aware that it is illegal to host a party where anyone under 21 is drinking — even if they aren’t the ones who purchased the alcohol — Police Capt. Kris Markeson said the new law does discourage people from letting teens drink in large, group settings.
“I think it has been a deterrent,” Markeson said. “I can’t say it’s been the only deterrent. I think maybe also younger people are getting smarter, maybe they’re not drinking as much. Or maybe they’re drinking somewhere there isn’t a social host ordinance.”
Since 2006, social host ordinances have been adopted by nearly 50 Minnesota communities, including Waseca, Owatonna, Kenyon, Faribault, Northfield and Rice County.
The laws differ from place to place. Some are more specific about who is accountable as a host. Depending on the language of the specific ordinance, blame could extend to those directly involved with the party or to an adult who turns a blind eye to a party.
In Waseca, violating the social host ordinance is a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Proponents say the law plugs a legal loophole and helps combat underage drinking by penalizing those who allow underage drinking to take place.
Though it has been illegal for many years for a person to provide alcohol to anyone under age 21, Markeson said it is difficult to issue citations to those who actually procure alcohol for underage drinkers, because it requires an admission of guilt.
That’s part of the reason Waseca has a social host ordinance.
“It was passed in 2008 and basically it was in response to the problem we were having of going to underage parties and finding underage drinkers but no one who would admit responsibility for providing the alcohol,” Markeson said. “In a lot of those cases, no one would be held accountable.”
The city has issued 14 social host citations since 2008. Markeson said though the number sounds small, without the social host ordinance that’s 14 cases that would not have resulted in any criminal charges against the adults responsible for letting underage drinking occur under their purview.
Though social host ordinances do discourage adults from providing an environment for teens to drink, underage consumption is still a problem in Waseca and Waseca County.
Citations are issued regularly in Waseca for underage consumption, Markeson said. Since 2008, 327 have been issued, according to police records.
“We have a zero tolerance policy against underage drinking,” Markeson said. “If you’re found by one of our officers drinking, you’ll get a ticket.”
Markeson said though there is no way of knowing if city’s teens are drinking less or just leaving city limits to drink, he hopes that underage residents have started using better judgment.
“I hope a lot of it is they’re just making better decisions,” Markson said. “I really hope that’s it.”
A 2010 Minnesota Student Survey taken by Waseca County teens, points to issues with underage drinking throughout the county.
Students taking the survey were asked if they engaged in frequent binge drinking — 14 percent of the 12th grade girls surveyed said yes. Of the boys, 35 percent said yes.
The state average is about 23 percent.
Waseca County Sheriff Brad Milbrath said the number of citations issued by his office varies depending on the time of the year.
“There are times when you go to a party and you can write up to 50 citations,” Milbrath said. “Sometimes you’re on patrol and you just write one or two.”
And Waseca is the only city in the county to have a social host ordinance, he said. The county itself does not have a social host ordinance either, though it is important to note that county ordinances are not enforceable within incorporated areas (i.e. cities).
For example, non-incorporated areas such as townships would fall under the county ordinance, whereas cities within the county would need to adopt a similar ordinance for it to be enforceable within their city limits.
Milbrath said many underage drinking parties that happen outside cities or in rural areas often take place on abandoned property and it would be hard to file criminal charges against a host.
But he still thinks a county-wide social host ordinance would be a useful tool.
“I think it would be of value,” Milbrath said. “Definitely. We can never have too many tools in our toolbox.”
Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies