When I was guest speaker at a high-school health class in a preventive program about underage drinking recently, I was asked, "What's the most trouble you can get into if you host a party that gets busted for underage drinking?"
The answer is that it is a lot worse than you think, whether a parent is the host or a teenager.
In New York state, anyone who provides alcohol to someone under 21, except their own child, can be charged with the misdemeanor of unlawfully dealing with a child. A conviction results in a criminal record and carries up to one year in jail or three years on probation.
Many times, allowing your own child under age 17 to drink could be charged under a different misdemeanor, endangering the welfare of a child, which has the same sentences.
The drinking age in New York is 21, but once a person turns 16, he or she can be charged criminally for breaking the law. This may not seem fair, but it means that teens who are underage themselves can be charged with unlawfully dealing with a child for providing alcohol to another teen. The law is broken whether you charge money for the alcohol or give it away.
As Plattsburgh City Court judge, I saw kids charged under this law when they had parties and teenage friends drank beer, even when the teens helped themselves to it.
Certainly, the underage drinker is responsible for his own behavior. So, a kid who drives away from the party after drinking could be arrested for driving while intoxicated. New York has a "zero tolerance" law that makes it against the law for anyone under 21 to drive with as low as 0.02 percent of blood alcohol content. If the content is 0.02 to 0.07 for a driver under 21, though, in many cases the charge can be handled administratively rather than through the criminal court. Anyone caught driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher will be charged in court with misdemeanor DWI.
A person might be injured or property damaged by an underage drinker. Maybe the passenger of the drunk driver was hurt or the teen drinker got in a fight or vandalized someone's property. The kid who did the damage or caused the injury can be prosecuted.
In addition, many times, the person who hosted the party or bought the alcohol can also be charged with a crime. Even the person or store that sold the alcohol might get into trouble, especially if they knew it was going to underage drinkers.
Parties with underage drinkers commonly come to the attention of the police — and hosts get criminally charged — when a teen gets hurt in some way. I've seen cases where a young person is so sick with alcohol poisoning that he or she must be hospitalized and others where a kid has been assaulted or been taken advantage of sexually.
Besides alcohol, there are other charges for providing marijuana or a controlled substance to another person, including prescription pills. Sharing or giving it away is the same as a sale in the criminal law.
Teens have been arrested who took pills from the family medicine cabinet and shared them with other kids on the bus or at school.
If parents are aware that kids gather at their home to engage in illegal activity, like using drugs or underage drinking, the adults can be charged with criminal nuisance.
Furthermore, as the health class learned, a person who provides alcohol to an underage drinker can also be sued civilly and be required to pay money damages, in addition to any criminal liability.
A parent whose child was given alcohol by someone else and is hurt can sue. This can be very expensive for the host, especially if the injured person requires extensive medical or mental-health care.
So, the answer to the question about the worst that can happen is that you could have a criminal record, spend months in jail and have to pay many thousands of dollars to the person hurt because you hosted a party with underage drinkers.
Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.