April 25, 2017

The Law: Punishment of Parents who Allowed Underage Drinking at Their Home

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Matt Brown, a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Arizona, wrote an article for Mimesis Law titled “Sending an Empty Message on Underage Drinking”, about a couple in Massachusetts who were sentenced to jail for hosting an underage drinking party. 

Summary of Matt Brown’s Opinions/Assertions

Based on Matt’s article, this is what I surmise his assertions/opinions/beliefs to be:

  • The punishment the parents received does not fit the crime
  • The punishment does not send a message to other parents
  • Kids would be better off if they were allowed to drink at home
  • Society would be better off if kids were allowed to drink at home
  • Not allowing kids to drink at home encourages them to sneak around, and drink in the woods
  • Sneaking around could result in a kid dying alone in the woods
  • The girl is being used as a snitch to help prove the governments case
  • Cops send kids to the hospital when the kids don’t need treatment
  • Punishing this crime will make criminals out of parents who let their kids have a taste of alcohol every now and again

Provided I have accurately labeled his position, I think Matt Brown is ignoring a number of factors that trouble me. One of them is that I don’t think kids should be encouraged to drink in excess, party to excess or put themselves in harm way even when supervised by adults. In any event, here is what appears to have happened according to the Boston Globes reporting of the events.

In Order for Matt to be Correct…

When I read an article like Matt’s I am looking for some truth. Not just Matt’s truth, but any truth. I want to have a sense that at least part of what the author is asserting has a logical premise, and even if subjective, is an argument worth giving time to. With that, in my view, in order for Matt’s assertions to have validity, the following would have to be true:

  • The punishment fitting the crime is largely dependent on the facts of the case being, or not being, true. Then, we would have to conclude, with some evidence, that the party has sever enough negative consequences that it warranted the punishment received.
  • To me there needs to be something more than Matt’s opinion for me to conclude that this case would not send a message to other parents.
  • As to society, I would need some more conclusive evidence that society as a whole, as well as individual underage drinking kids would gain if this type of activity was allowed.
  • I would want to understand that not only do cops send kids to the hospital without them needing to be hospitalized, but that in doing so they do more harm than good. To conclude that, I would want to know that kids dont die because someone didnt get them medical treatment that they needed.
  • I would want to see, maybe over time, that parents who give their kids a sip of beer from time to time were sent to Pelican Bay, locked down in solitary for their crimes against humanity.
  • The law, and the punishment are not aligned with the overall purpose of the law to begin with, which I understand to basically be protecting us from ourselves and each other, as well as us from the government.  

The Situation

From a Boston Globe article

A Saugus couple will serve jail time for being home during a drinking party in 2013 that was attended by dozens of minors including a teenaged girl who became drunk and had to be hospitalized, prosecutors said.

John and Josephine Penza, 52 and 55 respectively, were at their home Aug. 18, 2013, when their children — one was a recent high school graduate and the other was almost 20 — invited friends over for a party, according to Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

When police responded to a noise complaint at the Palmer Avenue home that night, they found about 70 underage partygoers, including a 16-year-old girl who was drunk in an upstairs bathroom and had to be taken to a hospital. Prosecutors said Josephine Penza instructed the girl to tell police she had food poisoning.

Prosecutors said the evidence introduced at trial included photographs of a table set up for a drinking game and numerous empty alcohol containers.

What exactly was the crime?

Neither I, Matt Brown or anyone else can really say, with any amount of certainty, whether the punishment fit the crime because, and based on even Matt’s opinion, it isn’t entirely clear what actually happened. Based on the initial excerpts from the Globes article Matt asserts…

It does sound bad, especially the part about the teenage girl who had to be hospitalized. However, it’s not totally clear whether she had to be hospitalized because police overreacted, or if she really did require medical help. Having a law office near Arizona State University, an institution whose students have been known from time to time to attend soirées that may involve drinking, I’m frequently surprised by just how willing cops are to hospitalize kids who really aren’t that drunk. Admittedly, I usually get to see the kids in question a few days later, pissed off about an unwanted medical bill and a minor in consumption charge, but the blood alcohol levels often confirm that they probably didn’t need medical intervention. I wouldn’t be shocked if the girl didn’t really need the help.

OK, fair enough, but so far, what I see as a non-lawyer is a criminal defense lawyer expressing an opinion on what he thinks happened based on his past experience with what does happen. That really isn’t all that compelling and forces me to wonder whether the girl did or didn’t need to be sent to the hospital for treatment. 

Furthermore, what sounds even worse is that, according to prosecutors, one of the parents told the girl to tell police she had food poisoning. I can’t imagine there’s a good explanation for that, but I’m guessing from the parents’ lawyer’s statements that the defense might disagree that it happened. After all, even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, he provides a pretty obvious motive for the drunken girl painting the hosting parents in the worst possible light.

The obvious motive according to Matt is that the girl said what she said about the parents to avoid having to deal with legal issues of her own. He adds a quote from the Globe article that said…

He said the 16-year-old girl identified by prosecutors “testified under a promise by the District Attorney’s Office that she would not be prosecuted for her own criminal acts.”

“He”, from the quote above, is the parents criminal defense lawyer who is obviously doing his job by trying to discredit the girl. Matt continues on by suggesting what I so far understand to be the likely situation. That is…

It’s probably a situation where everyone is adjusting the narrative to make them look as good as possible. The girl probably had the time of her life until she went too far and felt like shit, and then she snitched to save herself. The parents probably knew exactly what was going on and then feigned ignorance. Now, they’re spinning competing stories about an innocent girl victimized by irresponsible parenting and some sober but mildly neglectful parents hanging out in some far corner of the house, unaware of kids arriving in hordes due to social media. Reality, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle.

So far we have, in my view, a he said she said situation that makes it nearly impossible to draw any reasonable conclusions. Surely, if what the prosecutions says is true, the parents deserve some sort of punishment. Given that it appears the parents were negligent in their supervision of minors, I think the punishment should be harsh. I say this as a parent who would, if my son were present, be furious that he was allowed to participate in such dangerous behavior.

It is Matt’s job to be skeptical of the governments case. He wouldn’t be much of a criminal defense lawyer if he caved in when representing his clients. Because I am not a criminal defense lawyer, nor am I a criminal, I have no bias clouding my perspective on this situation. The parents either did or did not do something to jeopardize the safety of kids, and need to be punished according to the law. 

Sending a message to other parents?

From the Globe, the police chief apparently made the following statement…

Saugus police Chief Domenic DiMella said in a statement that the case should serve as a reminder to parents that they could face charges under the state’s Social Host Law if their underage children are caught hosting a party where alcohol is served.

“Do not be tempted to allow your son or daughter to have friends over to drink, especially during the holidays or end of the year celebrations,” he said.

According to Matt…

The police chief’s comments suggest that there’s something inherently bad about letting your kids have friends over when they may drink; that it isn’t just a problem because it’s illegal, but because it’s wrong.

Matt is asserting that the chief is imposing his morality on society by implying what is or is not wrong from the perspective of underage drinking. While it is easy for me to understand why this can be problematic, it is not a leap for me to agree with the chief that allowing kids to drink to excess is not really a good thing to do, legal or otherwise.

Matt reveals that the parents were sentenced to 9 months in jail, likely having to serve 30 days with the remainder being suspended for 2 years. Additionally, the parents will be required to remain drug and alcohol free for those 2 years, and according to the District Attorney, Jonathan Blodgett…

“Parents can no longer turn a blind eye when it comes to underage drinking,” Blodgett said in a statement. “The sentence imposed underscores the seriousness of the offense, and I hope will send a message to other parents who think letting young people drink in their home is no big deal.”

Matt is not convinced that this punishment sends any message. I think if it get’s out that parents were sent to jail because they let kids drink at their house, many parents will not let kids drink at their homes. To Matt however, this presents another problem for society.

Does society gain?

Matt is not convinced that society wouldn’t be better served if minors were allowed to have their friends over for some drinks at their parents house.  

Thirty days seems like an enormous amount of time given the offense, as I’m actually not so sure that society wouldn’t be better served letting minors get together and drink at their parents’ houses. The reality for most teenagers is that their parents are lame and their friends have far more influence on what they do or don’t do. Drinking is going to be cool to them, just like it has been for generations of teens before them, and they are going to do it no matter what. Not letting parents monitor it teaches them to hide their drinking, which isn’t exactly the best message.

Drinking is cool for some kids, not all kids. Matt’s argument is that letting parents monitor their kids drinking will alleviate the need for kids to learn how to hide and sneak around. Maybe. Maybe not. Are there any studies to suggest this or are we to take Matt’s word for it?

Is it Safer to Let Kid’s Drink at Home?

Coming from a home where I was allowed to drink from an early age, I can say, I was not allowed to have parties or to drink to the point of a drunken mess.

I was allowed to taste and sip in the presence of my parents. As a result, I never had the need to do much more because it didn’t have the appeal it had for some. However, I did, on a few occasions, drink to excess and did not do so in front of my parents because it would not have been tolerated.

So Matt’s suggestion that letting kids have drunk fests at their parents home doesn’t appear to me to be anything but his opinion or his feeling on the matter.  

Plus, if we did stamp out parties hosted by parents, kids would just find new places to do it. With house parties, at least one kid is already home, and in the event of an emergency, there’s an adult around. If they’re driving out in the countryside to do it, every last one of them is going to have to get home somehow, and there are going to be automobiles involved. Kids who drink too much, like the one who apparently drank too much at the Penzas’ house, may end up dying alone in the woods or at best getting a drunk ride to the hospital. Plus, the result when kids with no experience with alcohol find themselves completely unleashed at college is rarely a good one.

I am not convinced Matt. I don’t think that because kids will find a way to do it is a good enough reason not to hold adults accountable for not encouraging it.

Though admittedly at this point, neither Matt or I am expressing anything other than an opinion or a belief. Matt believes that it is better, and right, to allow parents to supervise their kids having drink fests. I, and it would appear, the chief of police, don’t agree.

I do agree, to a certain point, that it would be better for a kid to not be doing stupid things out in the middle of the woods, but that still doesn’t suggest to me that we as a society should make it easy for kids to do stupid things at home. 

Stupid is stupid, supervised or not.

But Matt doesn’t agree…

I’m not at all convinced about the seriousness of the offense, and I’m downright confused about the requirement that the Penzas remain alcohol-free for two years. Unless they allowed the party because they were too impaired to stop it, something the article suggests was not the case, I can’t see any rational basis for that part of the sentence except to further fuel the desire to send a message to other parents who think letting young people drink in their home is no big deal. But with that sort of goal, pretty much anything that makes things a little worse for the Penzas becomes fair game at sentencing. Maybe that’s the point.

To me the rational basis for the sentence is that they broke the law and in doing so put at risk the safety of minors. 

While the prosecutor and the chief made statements about sending messages, surely, criminal punishment isn’t meant to deter. It is meant to punish people for their actions. 

The Penzas won’t be getting my vote for parents of the year, but something isn’t quite right about their conviction and especially their sentence. If they really did know there were 70 kids boozing it up, were aware many of them were doing it to excess, and then coached a girl to lie when caught, throwing the book at them isn’t going to have even the tiniest effect on any responsible parent who maybe lets their kid sample a drink on occasion or fails to catch it every time their kid has friends over and one of them sneaks in a flask. There’s no message at all to normal parents, except that some outliers got punished for a mistake they’d never make anyway.

Personally, I don’t think non-criminals are the intend recipients of the message being sent. I think the people who the message is intended for, if and when they are made aware of the message, are the people who think allowing their kids to party like animals is a great thing. 

Also, if they did everything the governments says they did, then they deserve some sort of punishment, regardless of the message it would send. 

The only harm would be, as is usually the case, the results of one trial sets a bad precedent for future scenarios that ultimately lead to making criminals out of law abiding citizens.

What are the Risks of Alcohol Abuse?

It isn’t clear to me whether or not holding parents accountable for this type of party will or will not result in more or less alcohol consumption by underage drinkers. What is clear to me is that underage drinking is not a good thing if and when it becomes habitual and to an excess. This is a relevant concern because if I read Matt correctly, he does not think that punishing parents who allow underage drinking will help reduce the risk to kids, and in fact, may enhance the risk by forcing kids to live dangerously. 

So, assuming that we agree that alcohol consumption by minors puts them at risk, the question moves to how can we work to collectively limit the amount of alcohol kids consume. 

Some experts argue that we should have a legal drinking age that starts around the age of 6. The basic argument, and one that I agree with, suggests that kids don’t struggle with the allure of breaking the law by consuming alcohol as a minor. The data from either side of the debate suggest that:

  • Lowering the drinking age takes away the allure of drinking so that kids actually drink less.
  • Having a legal age limit might reduce the risk of accident related fatalities as a result of drinking and driving.

I am not an expert on these matters. All I know is that parents really should consider not allowing their children to drink to excess, home or away. I think society benefits in the long run. 

Should the parents be in jail?

Yes, I think they should. For two reasons. One, I think it will send a message. Two, even if it doesn’t, I think the negligence is such that it deserves punishment of some sort.

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