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courant.com/news/local/hc-houseparty0813.artaug13,0,7661047.story

Party Law Hits Hard

Driving Licenses Put At Risk

By MELISSA PIONZIO

Courant Staff Writer  Courant.com

August 13, 2007

It's been a little more than a year since the state passed a law that subjects hosts of house parties and their guests to fines and possible arrest if minors present are found to be in possession of alcohol.

Still, some parents continue to host the parties, authorities say - perhaps because they are ignorant of the law, but more often because they believe that condoning parties in their homes will prevent their sons and daughters from seeking out unsupervised gatherings elsewhere.

Before the law was approved in June 2006, possession of alcohol by an underage person was illegal only on public property. The change in the law makes it illegal for a property owner to permit anyone under 21 to possess alcohol on the property, or for the owner to fail to make reasonable efforts to stop a minor from possessing alcohol on the property. It also gives law enforcement officers the right to enter private property if they believe an underage party is taking place.

"The point of the law in the first place was mainly to put a stop to parent-sanctioned parties in their homes," said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, a chairman of the state Judiciary Committee. "Mainly because many kids have been killed in these situations, even when the car keys have been taken away."

In Portland, police responded to a complaint of an underage party at a private home on prom night this year and discovered about 60 underage partygoers, many of whom were in possession of alcohol. The adults at the residence cited concern about their son's safety as the main reason for hosting the party.

Sgt. James Kelly said Portland's police department has utilized the "house party" law to curb underage drinking several times this summer, but laments that it would be more helpful if parents simply would stop condoning underage house parties.

"In our cases, they are not surprised, they are aware that it's illegal and have chosen to host them anyway," Kelly said. "In my experience, the laws are well-known now, it's more common to people now than it was before. We had a town ordinance about house parties before the law was passed, so people were aware of it."

The state law includes fines for underage attendees of such parties. A first offense is punishable by a fine of $136, payable by mail. Subsequent offenses are subject to as much as one year in prison, a fine of up to $500, or both.

But what many don't realize is that when they pay the fine, they are also pleading guilty to the infraction. What follows that admission is a 150-day motor vehicle license suspension, under a separate Department of Motor Vehicles law that has been on the books since 1993.

"[The] statute requires 150 days' suspension," said Bill Seymour, a DMV spokesman. "It is for a person under the age of 21 in possession of alcohol, whether you are in a car or not, whether it was you who drove or not. If you are given a citation it no longer requires a booking from the police department as they once did. If you sign the infraction `guilty' and send it in, you are automatically going to receive a suspension for 150 days."

West Hartford resident Ethan Frankel thought his underage son was at a friend's house when the 17-year-old attended a party in April where alcohol was present. His son had already left the party and was in his car with two other friends when the police arrived, said Frankel.

"He stayed there and talked to them and cooperated with the police. A lot of the kids ran away from the party, jumped out windows," said Frankel. He said his son did not possess or drink alcohol that night, but still received a citation. "A West Hartford policeman told us to just sign the ticket and send in the money and that will be it."

After his son paid the fine, Frankel said, a notice from the DMV arrived stating the teen's license would be suspended. The Frankels have since hired a lawyer to look into the matter.

"It just didn't seem fair. It's like a trick, we felt tricked because we didn't know that this would happen," said Frankel, who fears his auto insurance fees will increase. "I know what they are trying to do and obviously they are looking out for people's safety, but it needed to be thought out more."

West Hartford Police Chief Jim Strillacci said he advocated both locally and at a legislative level through the Police Chief's Association to close the loophole that allowed minors to possess alcohol on private property. But he admits that he and his officers were unaware of the DMV law.

"Little did we know that there is a section in the motor vehicle code that a license will be suspended if used to procure booze if you are a minor and also if you posses alcohol and are a minor," he said. "It kind of snuck up on us. I don't think this was the intention. I don't recall it ever being discussed during the testimony at the proposal [for the law change], but that doesn't mean it is wrong or unjust."

Lawlor said he thinks it is a good that the house party law is being used by police to curb underage drinking. Although losing one's license is a nuisance, he said, it reinforces the message that it is illegal for minors to possess or consume alcohol in Connecticut.

"Using the excuse that you are trying to keep kids safe by having a party at your house and allowing them to drink isn't acceptable because it is against the law," Lawlor said. "I think organizing a drinking party is one of those ways that is a deterrent to keeping kids from acting responsibly. If you were inviting over 50 high school kids in the aftermath of the graduation, you are going to have to take some special precautions to make sure that those kids aren't going to drink."

Lawlor said the DMV rule was recently modified, but is still in place.

"In the future, there will be a mandatory court appearance with those tickets, so you can't just mail your payment in and later find out later after you pleaded guilty that your license has been suspended," he said. "It's very important that the punishment fit the crime."

Contact Melissa Pionzio at mpionzio@courant.com.

Copyright 2007, The Hartford Courant

     
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