2007-01-18 / Front Page

When parents take responsibility

By Stephanie Bertholdo bertholdo@theacorn.com

With teenage drinking parties on the rise in Agoura Hills, city officials last week considered adopting a "social host ordinance."

A social host ordinance would hold parents responsible if teenagers are caught drinking alcohol at their home--and sometimes causing a ruckus in the neighborhood. The hosts could be prosecuted in civil court with a possible penalty of up to a $1,000 fine. The proposal is modeled on a similar ordinance enacted by Ventura County.

Nathan Hamburger, assistant to the Agoura Hills city manager, presented a report on the proposed ordinance to the City Council on Jan. 10.

Studies show underage drinkers most often obtain access to alcohol at parties held at private homes, Hamburger said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department presented the social host ordinance as a means for Agoura Hills to address public nuisance complaints, underage drinking and "large unruly gatherings," according to Hamburger's report.

The model ordinance was developed by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department as a tool for law enforcement agencies to break up parties in private homes where minors are drinking or distributing alcohol. Such laws have recently been enacted in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, Hamburger said, although the laws are so new, data on their effect has not been collected.

"It's been on the law enforcement committee's agenda for several months," Councilmember Denis Weber said. Numerous incidents prompted citizens to complain to the city; a group of residents pleaded for a solution at a City Council meeting. Weber said the ordinance would be a "logical extension to control an out-of-control situation."

Weber, a member of the law enforcement committee, said the committee discussed fining parents who were on the premises where their children drank rather than those who were out of town and unaware of their children's behavior.

If passed, Agoura Hills parents would be required to pay a fine, although the amount has yet to be determined. If the offense is a "one-time mistake," Hamburger said, the minor could perform community service in lieu of a fine. The district attorney's office could also work with the family, helping teens and parents avoid a criminal record.

"A child can do community service or whatever the penance is going to be," Councilmember William Koehler said, noting he wasn't comfortable holding a parent accountable if they're not at home.

Councilmember John Edelston asked whether the city could be held responsible if minors were caught drinking alcohol at other events or at the city's recreation center.

City Attorney Craig Steele said the ordinance would only apply to residences and penalize the adult who should have been in control. The law would help parents take control of their children, he said.

"Parents should make a plan before they leave their teenagers home alone," Steele said.

If the ordinance is passed, the city would hire a former Lost Hills Sheriff's Station sergeant on an hourly basis to serve as a hearing officer.

Mayor Dan Kuperberg said he was concerned that the law would be viewed as a punishment for parents rather than a deterrent to young drinkers.

Lt. Steve Smith of the Lost Hills Station said parents often host parties and supply alcohol to their underage children. They believe they are protecting their children by having the parties at home, he said.

Smith said the current law is very frustrating because deputies are limited to breaking up parties. Officers cannot take other action unless they catch a drinking minor in the act, he said. Finding kegs and empty cans of beer is not enough proof of wrongdoing, he said.

"It's very, very time-consuming," Smith said. In addition to taking deputies away from other duties, resources are wasted, he said. Teenagers who consume too much alcohol often must be taken to a hospital.

"Underage drinking is against the law," Smith said. But under the new ordinance, "if it looks like a duck, it's a duck," he said of evidence minors have been drinking.

In addition to issuing a citation to the adult responsible, officers will write a report. "Our goal is to paint an appropriate word picture," Smith said.

An appeal process would be allowed under the new law, if it is passed.

City officials left the public hearing open and will vote on the issue at the Feb. 14 council meeting.

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