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Time To Close A Loophole In State Law



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Time To Close A Loophole In State Law

A group of concerned citizens, including public officials, police, and activists, made what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to Hartford last week to again ask lawmakers to make it illegal for children to drink on private property without the permission of a parent or guardian. It is hard to understand why this would be a controversial proposal, but similar legislation has failed in each of the last four years largely because of fears by some legislators that the enforcement of such a law would encroach on constitutional protections in the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.

State law does prohibit adults from providing alcohol to minors, but it is still legal in Connecticut for groups of children to possess and consume alcoholic beverages on private property.

Fortunately, Newtown decided two and a half years ago not to wait for the state to give local police the legal basis they need to intervene when groups of children are getting intoxicated and posing risks to the health and safety of themselves and others. The town enacted an ordinance in 2003 prohibiting anyone from hosting a party at which alcoholic beverages are served to minors unless the parents or guardians of those minors are present. The ordinance applies to both public and private property and states that no person under the age of 21 shall be in possession of, or in control of, any container of alcoholic liquor, whether open, unopened, or closed, except when accompanied by, or in the presence of his or her parent, guardian, or spouse, who is at least 21 years old.

Newtown’s police have used this ordinance successfully to stop teen drinking on private property without compromising constitutional search and seizure protections. They still need probable cause or a warrant to enter private property. (At parties where intoxication is the whole point of the event, probable cause is plentiful.) The only drawback to the local ordinance is that its maximum fine of $90 is so insignificant that it could be seen by some as just another party expense.

Newtown’s underage drinking ordinance needs the backing of a state statute to bolster both the legal authority of the police and the penalties imposed on those few remaining “hosts” who believe jeopardizing the health and safety of children constitutes “a good time.” Let this be the year that Hartford closes this senseless loophole in state law.

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