Wisconsin Legislators Target Adults That Host Underage Drinkers

By CARA LOMBARDO | March 29, 2017

Adults who let teenagers drink in their homes would be breaking the law under a proposal two Republican Wisconsin lawmakers are circulating.

The bill would address what Rep. Andre Jacque and Sen. Van Wanggaard call the “social host” loophole in current state law, which prohibits people who are old enough to drink from allowing people who aren’t 21 to drink alcohol in “premises” owned or controlled by the person who is of legal drinking age. An appeals court last year narrowly interpreted “premises” to refer only to licensed establishments such as liquor stores or bars.

Jacque and Wanggaard want to extend the law to include adults who allow underage drinking in their own homes. Jacque said a cultural acceptance of underage drinking in the state is partly to blame for Wisconsin’s above-average drunken driving and binge drinking rates and should be addressed.

“There’s a legal drinking age for a reason,” Jacque said. “This whole idea that underage drinking is okay or safe in certain settings sends the wrong message.”

Under the proposal, adults could be held responsible both if they give teens express permission to drink or if they fail to intervene in underage drinking they know is happening on property they own or occupy. People who break the law could be fined $500 for a first offense and face increasing penalties for subsequent offenses, including fines of up to $10,000 and up to nine months in prison.

About a third of Wisconsin youth ages 12 to 20 drink alcohol and almost 20 percent drink five or more drinks at once, according to a 2016 report from the state Department of Health Services. Both figures slightly exceed national averages. The department’s campaign called “Parents Who Host Lose the Most” specifically targets adults who allow underage drinking in their homes.

In October, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Wisconsin father who threw a graduation party for his son where underage drinking occurred. The father was cited with violating a Fond du Lac County ordinance prohibiting adults from hosting underage drinkers in their homes and assessed a $1,000 fee. But the appeals court said the ordinance was invalid because of a state law that bars underage drinkers on their premises, which the court interpreted as establishments with licenses or permits to distribute alcohol. The court said local penalties cannot exceed state penalties.

Jacque and Wanggaard said in a memo seeking co-sponsors that their bill would clarify the intent of state law and restore the ability of law enforcement to cite people who host underage drinking parties on their property.

Groups backing the measure include the Wisconsin Medical Society, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Badger State Sheriffs Association and the Wisconsin Association of Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs, according to the memo.

An identical bill passed an Assembly committee with bipartisan support in 2013 – including that of current Assembly Speaker Robin Vos – but never made it to the floor after counties and municipalities voiced concerns about maintaining local control, Jacque said. That changed after the appeals court decision and a similar lower court ruling.

“Folks are on board now who before were saying “What’s the need?”‘ Jacque said. “For the first time, we have a united front.”

A spokeswoman for Vos, a spokeswoman for Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca and a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling did not immediately respond to questions about whether they plan to support this session’s proposal.

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