It's that time of year: High school seniors across the state are getting ready to put on their cap and gown -- but sometimes the pomp and circumstance is followed by alcohol. Now, one county in the east metro is taking the opportunity to crack down on underage drinking.
Like a lot of parents, Kim Scollick tries to keep a close eye on her 10th-grade son -- even when he's on the field playing lacrosse.
"We always make sure we know where he's at, who he's with -- and we're always up when he gets home," she said.
With graduation around the corner -- and the parties that will follow, Scollick admits she sometimes worries he may not make it home.
"There is a lot of drinking and other things going on," she said. "You're always worried about your kids driving home. Even if they are being safe, somebody else might not."
That's part of the reason why Washington County Attorney Pete Orput penned an open letter to parents to remind them it's against the law to serve alcohol to minors -- even during graduation season.
According to Orput, many parents may not know they can be charged with a felony if a minor who drinks at their house gets hurt while intoxicated. Parents could also be opening themselves up to civil suits if their home hosts a party with underage drinkers.
"Some parents think that, 'Well, kids are going to drink regardless.' Therefore, they can have control over it by furnishing alcohol or a place to drink," Orput explained. "This is a reminder to them that no, no this is against the law."
Orput is also giving police in communities like Cottage Grove a refresher course on what to do when approaching a party with underage drinking, going over things like who has the authority to let them in and when it is appropriate to get a search warrant so possible charges aren't thrown out of court.
Scollick says she appreciates the law and the crackdown, saying it's simple: "If you are under 21, you just shouldn't drink."
"I think parents should be accountable," she said. "If they are going to let kids do this, they should get in trouble. There's no reason for underage drinking whatsoever."
The open letter from Orput can be read in full below:
A Safe and Healthy High School Graduation
With high school graduation rapidly approaching, parents need to be reminded that it is a crime to provide minors with alcohol or a place to drink alcohol. Though some teens drink without experiencing any lasting consequences, the activity is extremely risky. Alcohol consumption causes the death of about 5,000 American teenagers every year. These deaths are unnecessary and are often caused by the adults who provide minors with alcohol or allow underage drinking parties to occur. Those adults who encourage underage drinking are harming children and also exposing themselves to both criminal and civil liability.
Some parents mistakenly believe that teen alcohol consumption is inevitable and allow it to occur under their watch. However, public health research indicates that the children of parents that prohibit drinking are substantially less likely to consume alcohol. A 2011 study, lead-authored by University of Minnesota professor Barbara McMorris, found that teens whose parents allow supervised drinking are more likely to have problems discontinuing alcohol use, have problems at school, problems at home, get into fights, suffer from injuries caused by alcohol, experience "blackouts" or unconsciousness due to extreme intoxication, and have sexual experiences they later regret. There is also evidence that people who start using alcohol as teens are also much more likely to be alcohol dependent in their adult life.
As most people know, it is a crime for an adult to provide alcohol to minors. However, many do not know that adults who provide alcohol to minors can be charged with a felony if the minors are hurt while intoxicated. Many people are also unaware that under Minnesota law they could be liable for millions of dollars in damages if their home is used to host an underage drinking party. Under Minnesota law any person who is harmed by an intoxicated minor may be able to sue the adult who provided the liquor or who failed to prevent underage drinking on their property. Similar laws in other states have resulted in multi-million dollar judgments against parents who hosted underage drinking parties. For example, in a 2009 Illinois case, parents who did not know that their daughter was drinking with friends in their home had to settle a lawsuit for $2.5 million after one of the intoxicated minors drove drunk.
As a former high school teacher, I am all too aware of the consequences caused by underage drinking. I also know that the danger of these parties increases with the approach of graduation season. That is why I am working with our Washington County law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute those involved with underage drinking parties. I am also offering training to our law enforcement agencies to ensure the successful prosecution of these offenses. Community members who see signs of a possible underage drinking party should notify police immediately and know that their concerns will be taken seriously.
The Washington County Attorney's Office and our law enforcement community are proud of the graduating class of 2012. We congratulate them on all their hard work and dedication. We wish every high school student in Washington County a safe and healthy graduation season.
Pete Orput, County Attorney
Washington County, Minnesota