Wisconsin Bill Could Penalize Parents Who Allow Underage Drinking

Personal Injury
Underage Drinking Law

By Sean Lally, Staff Writer

Wisconsin State Representative, André Jaque (R-De Pere) announced in late March that he and Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) are introducing a bill that would close a loophole allowing parents to host underage drinkers, according to Cara Lombardo of the Associated Press. The “social host” loophole, as it is often called, emerged after the 2nd District Court of Appeals interpreted existing state law in such a way that it only pertained to establishments selling alcohol, such as liquor stores and bars. Under the proposed measure, parents allowing teenagers to drink in their homes would be fined $500 for the first offence. For each offence thereafter, fines would increase incrementally up to $10,000. Parents could also serve as much as 9 months in prison.

The Context

The case that opened the loophole took place in October of last year and involved a father who was fined $1,000 for allowing teenagers to drink at a graduation party. This was viewed as a violation of a Fond du Lac County ordinance until judges found the ordinance to conflict with a state law, which took priority. Apparently, the state law’s use of the term “premises” referred to bars and liquor stores and therefore excluded residential properties.

Additionally, a similar measure was introduced in 2013 and passed with a 7 to 1 vote in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, but didn’t end up going to the Senate floor. Jaque is convinced that given the recent emergence of a loophole, legislators will support the bill.

The Justification

In a press conference at St. Norbert College, Jaque said the measure is necessary because of the “social host” loophole, according to a report by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Jaque added that the legislation is more about reducing the dangers of underage drinking than it is about punishment.

To bolster this argument, Thomas Doughman, assistant director of counseling and psychological services at St. Norbert and representative of the Brown County alcohol and drug abuse task force, said “The culture here in Wisconsin embraces drinking ... that's a positive aspect if it's done responsibly." He continued, “But the younger you are when you start drinking, the more likely you are to have an issue with abuse or dependence." Doughman and Jaque both noted the prevalence of binge drinking as a major motivator behind the measure.

The Burden of the Law

However, neither Jaque nor Doughman touched on the potential costs to families already burdened by a thinning job market. As explained by Captain Kevin Warych with the Green Bay Police Department, fines for underage drinking can really add up and the police department hands out hundreds of citations every year. 161 tickets were given last year by the Green Bay Police and the year before that the department handed out 184 citations.

Universities could also be affected. According to Doughman, “If a student were to host an underage party, and the college does own houses students reside in, they could be held accountable by this law because they are risking the safety of other students." 

Possible Alternatives

In a public policy paper summarizing the book Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, the authors suggest that the most effective policies in deterring dangerous alcohol-related behaviors “include taxation that increases prices, restrictions on the physical availability of alcohol, drink-driving countermeasures, brief interventions with at risk drinkers and treatment of drinkers with alcohol dependence.” Perhaps Wisconsin lawmakers should take these suggestions into consideration. After all, in Europe, where the drinking age is generally 18, one out of every 10 drinking occasions results in intoxication, while in the U.S. one in two drinking occasions result in inebriation.

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