New City Drinking Law Targets Parents

Starting next month, Mercer Island parents will be held responsible for underage drinking at their homes even if they are out of town and unaware it is happening.

The recently passed “social host” ordinance, believed to be the first of its kind in the state, will take effect Jan. 13. The measure imposes a $250 fine on those who own, rent or lease property where teenage drinking has occurred.

It is already illegal for adults to provide alcohol to minors or for parents to let their underage children drink. The new ordinance takes the idea of parent responsibility a step further.

The ordinance, based on similar measures in Northern California, could inspire other Washington cities to follow suit, said Stacey Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Washington state Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

That process included more than two years of work, a City council member said. He added that he and his colleagues were pushed to act by the city’s Communities That Care project, which works to prevent young people from using alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Parents and teenagers in the affluent community of 23,000 expressed varying opinions about the ordinance.

Allie Ritcey, a junior at Mercer Island High School, said she agrees with the intent of the measure but isn’t sure it’s fair for parents to be held responsible for things their kids and their kids’ friends do without their knowledge. Teenagers are old enough to be accountable for their own actions, she said.

The 16-year-old also argued it’s safer to drink at a parent’s home than “in some old parking lot somewhere,” because drinking and driving is less likely.

“It’s not something that I think is ever going to go away completely, so you might as well be really safe doing it so nobody gets hurt,” she said.

Maryellen Johnson, who has children in middle and elementary schools on Mercer Island, disagreed.

“It’s a fallacy to think that children are safe because they’re drinking in one’s home,” said Johnson, who contended the fine imposed by the ordinance is not high enough. “They also get in a car and drive somewhere. And they’re at risk not only to themselves but to others.”

As for concerns about fairness, Johnson said, parents’ responsibility does not stop when they leave town.

“If you were out of the country and something happened and you got held responsible, I bet it wouldn’t ever happen again,” she said.

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