Parents Face Criminal Charges and Civil Liability for Underage Drinking

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 17, 2012

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Teenagers sneaking alcohol and throwing house parties while their parents are out of town has become a quintessential staple of American culture.  Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Kid n’ Play in House Party, McLovin and his friends in Superbad, and the ambitious teenagers in Project X represent a sample of countless movie characters whose main goal is to find a house party while their parents leave them alone.  From Hollywood to real life, the teenage house party has been a part of growing up across generations.

This illegal American tradition, ingrained as it is, has come under increased scrutiny across the country as 28 states have passed legislation that targets parents of teens who drink and throw parties with criminal sanctions and civil liability. Parents found responsible for underage drinking can face a variety of criminal punishments ranging from fines to potential jail time, and can be sued for any injuries or damage underage drinkers cause.  The language of law in most states allows for parents to be punished if they “permit” or “furnish” underage drinking, but the exact legal definition of these terms has not been universally defined.  While there are certainly going to be easy cases in which the parents were home and aware of the drinking, these laws may allow for criminal prosecutors to go after parents who are not at home or not aware of underage drinking in their home.  How the laws are interpreted remains to be seen, but already one parent has challenged their constitutionality.

In a recent case in Rhode Island, a woman charged with a violation of a law making it illegal to “permit” underage drinking is challenging the constitutionality of the law because it is unclear what behavior is illegal.  A 50-year-old mother, Terri Serra, was charged with a violation of the Rhode Island law after 4 teenagers were seriously injured in a car accident after leaving a party at her home where they consumed alcohol.  Mrs. Serra claims that she was not aware of any underage drinking on her property, and stated the party goers consumed alcohol without her knowledge.   Since she was on the property, her account is in dispute, but the possibility of laws placing criminal and civil liability on parents facing constitutional challenges is there.  If parents who were either not at home or not aware of illegal consumption of alcohol on their property, and are charged with a crime anyway, except to see attorneys push back against this legislation.

Because these are all state laws, they may all be different in the way they are written and interpreted.  Many of the laws are relatively new, and how they are interpreted remains to be seen.  However, the trend is clear: parents who allow, either explicitly or by careless supervision, underage drinking risk criminal charges and civil action for any injuries that result. 

As American as sneaking a teenage drink has become, states across the country are taking action to reduce potentially unsafe behavior.  Parents of teenagers need to be well aware of the possibility of underage drinking, and make sure that it does not occur in their home.

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