The Problem with Teen Parties

Teens, Underage Drinking and Parental Liability

Group of friends drinking at party
Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Once upon a time, teens and 20somethings were invited to parties. These days, they find out about them via Facebook, MySpace and text messages that can quickly catapult a small gathering of half a dozen close friends into a melee attended by hundreds. Remember the old “You tell two friends and they tell two friends…” shtick? It’s mathematics at work and the perils are fairly obvious. When strangers invade your home, house rules are the least of your worries. When it comes to teen parties and underage drinking, here’s what else your family should worry about - and tips on how to protect yourself:

  • Criminal Charges: Parents who are caught supplying alcohol, even inadvertently, to minors face serious liabilities. In some states, parents are subject to severe financial consequences, including fines and restitution to victims in the event of an accident. In addition, they may be charged in the criminal courts for, among other things, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In one instance, a mother bought a keg for her son’s 21st birthday party, which would have been fine except that the party guests included minors who began drinking too. After a brawl broke out and police arrived, she was arrested, convicted and ended up doing considerable community service, in lieu of jail time.
  • Financial Liability: In addition to civil suits, parents may be subject to police fees. Increasingly, communities are enacting special party laws that punish parents for allowing or contributing to underage drinking. In some Northern California communities, for example, parents are billed for police costs – up to $1,000 – for time spent breaking up a party. In some counties, parents are financially and criminally liable when alcohol is consumed by minors at a party – which in some cases is defined as a gathering of three or more people – whether or not the parents knew about the event beforehand. “I would not want,” says California attorney Mary Carey, “to be the test case.”
  • DUI and License Suspension: DUI laws differ for underage drinkers because alcohol affects young bodies differently. Where a blood alcohol level of .08 might put an adult behind bars, in some states a .05 may be sufficient to put an underage drinker in jail. In addition, underage drinkers may have their drivers licenses suspended for up to a year, even if the reason they were breathalyzed had nothing to do with driving. In other words, when police nab teens at college keggers, they tip off the department of motor vehicles too.
  • Felony Burglary: Everyone's heard nightmare stories about neighbors who left for the weekend and found their home had become party central in their absence. Teens contemplating "borrowing" an unattended home this way are courting significantly more than a mere trespassing charge. It’s considered burglary – a felony - if they take anything, including that bottle of vodka from the liquor cabinet. It’s a serious charge for minors, but an 18-year-old high school senior or college student will be tried in adult court and could be sentenced to state prison. If he lives in a state with a three-strikes law, it’s considered a first strike.
  • Tips to Protect Yourself: Talk seriously with your teen about alcohol, parties, and family liability long before it's an issue. Avoid leaving teens home alone overnight - wild parties can mushroom into existence without any intention on your child's part. Let neighbors know when you leave town. And finally, consult your homeowner's insurance policy to make sure you have adequate personal liability insurance.