Social host law simmers

Concerns about underage drinking were thrust into the spotlight again Monday as parents urged the La Cañada Flintridge City Council to implement a social-host ordinance, while public officials said their hands are tied when it comes to enforcement.

A social-host ordinance is designed to curb underage drinking by holding homeowners and adults responsible for furnishing alcohol to minors. The terms of social-host ordinances vary from city to city, but most include stiff fees for successive law-enforcement visits after an initial call-out. The city of Fontana's ordinance also has a "Scarlet Letter" component — if a homeowner is cited for a loud party, the city posts a sign near the home for 90 days identifying it as a location of a social-host violation.

The implementation and potential effectiveness of a social-host ordinance has been debated in La Cañada for months, including at Public Safety Commission meetings on April 25 and June 28. On Monday, community members, including parents and members of the La Cañada Unified School Board, reiterated their concerns about underage drinking, as well as their disgust with adults who permit such behavior in their homes.

"One of the things I always tell my daughter is, 'If you want to go to a party, make sure there is a parent there,'" said La Cañada High School parent Meredith Fox.

"That is one of my rules," Fox said, adding that she now wonders how safe it is for her to trust other La Cañada parents not to serve alcohol to minors.

It wasn't until after his three sons graduated from LCHS that he began to realize the scope of the problem, said Levent Akbarut.

"We have a social climate where we are not calling the parents out on serving alcohol to underage minors," Akbarut said. "And I think this is a very serious problem, and we don't have to wait for a death like in the city of South Pasadena," he said, referring to 17-year-old Aden Salek, who died in December after attending an Altadena party where alcohol was served to minors. "I really think we should put a social-host ordinance in place as soon as possible."

Phil Wyatt said his children were involved in two alcohol-related incidents while in high school.

"On one of those occasions I went to the parents' home who had hosted a party, who denied [serving] any alcohol at all," Wyatt said. "I pulled the sheriff in and I literally threatened the young man that I was going to have everybody given a blood test, and he finally admitted he was serving the alcohol, and his parents finally admitted that they were serving the alcohol."

The city already has in place a law that addresses loud and unruly parties, said Peter Castro, public-safety coordinator. When law enforcement responds to such a call, they issue to the property owner or adult a written warning. If law enforcement has to return to the location, those responsible can be fined for the cost of the sheriff's services.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Slater said that since June 1, units from the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station have responded to 34 calls reporting loud and unruly parties in La Cañada. Two of the incidents required a second visit before the parties quieted down. But not all of those parties involved teenagers, Slater said, noting that one was a retirement party attended by middle-aged adults.

And sheriff's deputies are constitutionally prohibited from entering a private residence without consent, a warrant or exigent circumstances, Slater said.

So, while it is illegal for adults to serve alcohol to minors, it is almost impossible to prove, he added.

"If the person slams the door on us and says it is a private property…we can't take it to the next step because we can't get past the threshold of the front door legally," Slater said.

Community members said they understood the complicated legal variables involved, but added that they were disappointed that the Public Safety Commission chose not to direct city staff to draft an ordinance.

Educating residents about the problem has its limits, said school board member Cindy Wilcox, because the parents who need to hear the message about the dangers of underage drinking rarely show up to such educational functions.

Susan Boyd, also a member of the La Cañada school board, said heavy fines such as those imposed by other cities could help.

"I know you can't prevent kids from drinking, but we can at least have some kind of deterrent for parents serving [alcohol]," Boyd said.

City Council members said they were deeply concerned about adults furnishing alcohol to minors, but added that they were hesitant to implement an ordinance that could prove ineffective.

"I think the real way to solve that issue in La Cañada is [for residents whose minor child has been served alcohol by another adult] to get an attorney and sue that parent," said Councilmember Dave Spence.

"If that happened one or two times in La Cañada, I am damn well sure that we wouldn't have this problem as much as we do now. I am opposed to passing a bunch of laws in this city that we can't enforce."

City Council directed staff to further research social ordinances in other cities and to return to the Public Safety Commission with additional options.

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