Fifty-one cities and towns in Oklahoma have enacted so-called “social host” laws. Social host liability laws hold non-commercial individuals responsible for underage drinking events on property they own, lease, or otherwise control.
Such liability has long been the law in civil tort law in some states. Such laws in the law of torts (non contract responsibility) are called Dram Shop Acts. Under such laws, one who gives alcohol to another who is apparently already intoxicated is liable in money damages for the harm caused by the other who drank too much. That would include one who drank too much, then drove his car into an accident injuring or killing someone.
Many laws prohibit furnishing alcoholic beverages to underage persons. In contrast to these laws, social host liability laws (also known as teen party ordinances, loud or unruly gathering ordinances) target the location in which underage drinking takes place.
John and Cheryl Kyle of Tuttle, Oklahoma, are not charged with violation of a social host law. They are facing Second Degree Murder charges for serving at their home a teen who allegedly became intoxicated there and then drove his vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, caused an accident and killed a 15-year-old girl. They will appear in Grady County District Court on March 13, 2009, to face those charges.
The Kyles likely wish they were only charged under a social host violation. They are alleged to have given a party on January 11, 2009, in their home. The problem for the Kyles is that one of their guests allegedly did exactly what the social host laws are designed to discourage.
Reportedly, the Kyles admitted to buying $86 worth of alcohol for their party for their 15-year-old son and his friends. The next morning, one of their guests, 16-year-old Lance Davis, left the party. He wrecked his pickup on a rural Tuttle road and killed in the accident was 15-year-old Kaitlyn Mounce of Tuttle. Three other teens were injured, including Lance Davis, who is facing a First Degree Manslaughter charged for allegedly taking the life of Kaitlyn Mounce. First Degree Manslaughter is punishable by not less than four years imprisonment up to life imprisonment.
The City of Edmond was the first city to pass a social host ordinance in Oklahoma in January, 2007. In Edmond, police have made 71 social host arrests during the first year of its existence. The number of arrests has since dropped significantly.
The rationale of the social host laws is to regulate teenage drinking. A 2005 survey of teenagers aged 13 to 18 conducted by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that nearly half of teenagers surveyed reported having obtained alcohol; two out of three teenagers said it was easy to get alcohol from their homes without their parents knowing about it; one-third of teens reported it was easy to obtain alcohol from their own consenting parents; two out of five teenagers said it was easy to obtain alcohol from a friend’s parents; one in four teenagers responded they had attended a party where minors were drinking in front of parents; and for teens who obtained alcohol in the past six months, parents have been the supplier an average of three times in a six-month period.
In contrast to social host liability laws, teen party ordinances make it illegal to host a party where underage youth are drinking. Under this law, the offense is the hosting of the party itself and parents or older friends and siblings can be arrested if they allow a drinking party to occur with their knowledge. Teen party ordinances differ from social host laws in two ways:
• Adults do not need to serve or provide alcohol in order to break the law. It’s enough if alcohol is present at the party.
• It doesn’t require a young person to suffer injury or cause property damages in order to hold the adult host accountable.
Many communities have passed social host and teen party ordinances. For instance, cities in San Diego County, California have either passed or are in the process of passing social host liability laws. Many other cities in states around the country—like California and Connecticut— have also passed teen party ordinances as a way to curb social access to alcohol for young people.