Will Parents Face Charges if Their Minor Children are Caught Drinking?

May 25, 2022 by Anthony Riccio

Last summer, James Coughlin, a retired Massachusetts State Trooper, and his wife Leslie threw a pool party for their child’s graduating class in Dedham, Massachusetts. The couple supplied the alcohol for a houseful of teenagers celebrating their last high-school hoorah.

At some point during the party, 17-year-old Alonzo Polk was pushed into the pool by one of his classmates. Polk did not know how to swim. He struggled and sank. He was still submerged when they pulled him from the pool, and James Coughlin administered CPR, but a few days later, Polk died at a Boston hospital.

Charged with furnishing alcohol to minors and reckless endangerment of a child, the Coughlins dispute the reckless endangerment charge, claiming Polk was not drinking and was playfully pushed into the pool by a peer who was unaware of Polk’s inability to swim. 

Polk had just graduated with honors. A two-sport athlete in high school, he excelled in both football and basketball. He discussed becoming an engineer. He had several scholarship offers and was deciding on the next steps of his future.

Alabama has similar laws to Massachusetts regarding underage drinking

Back in the summer of 2020, in Lee County, Edmund and Kimberly Carr had a house party and knowingly allowed minors to drink alcohol inside their home. At some point during the party, a juvenile reported that two other juveniles sexually assaulted her.

The two juveniles were indicted and will be tried as adults. The Smith couple was not charged in the sexual assault case, but they did receive a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the intoxication of minors.

In September 2021, in a courthouse in Alabama, the Smith couple pled guilty to knowingly allowing minors to drink in their home. Edmund Carr was sentenced to serve two days in the Lee County Detention Facility. The judge did not give Kimberly Carr any jail time, but they were both hit with fines.

Defining the Social Host Law

A recent study found that teens who have early exposure to alcohol in the home are not more protected against the dangers of alcohol. In fact, according to Lancet Public Health, those who are exposed to alcohol at an early age may be more likely to drink or suffer alcohol-related harms. 

Richard Mattick, the lead researchers, said that the parents’ aims were admirable, though wrong. He said, “When you look across a large number of people what you find is there’s no benefit.”

His study examined two groups of parents – one group who gave their children an occasional sip of alcohol versus those who provided their kids with full glasses of beer or wine. They found little difference in the outcome between the two groups. 

In Massachusetts, the statute that holds adults responsible for a minor’s actions while they are under the adult’s watch is known as the Social Host law. Under this law, it is illegal for adults to furnish, provide, or supply alcohol to anyone under the age of 21. It is also illegal for adults to consciously allow anyone underage to drink in their home.

According to 2018’s report from Massachusetts’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), 54 minors (12-20 years old) died from alcohol-attributed causes in 2017. Minors driving under the influence accounted for 17 of those deaths. More than 30% of the state’s minors admit to drinking in the past month. 

The Social Host law can be straightforward by charging adults for directly furnishing alcohol to minors. But the law can get muddy and unclear if a supervising adult does not know how the minors got the alcohol or if the adults are unaware of the minors drinking. In other words, the Commonwealth cannot bring charges against parents if their kids throw a party while they are out of town.

Charges or criminal citations under the Social Host law usually follow other incidents. If an adult supplies the alcohol that gets a minor drunk, and the minor is arrested for Disorderly Conduct or Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or some sort of drunken accident that causes an injury, or in the Coughlin case, something worse than an injury.

Penalties for Social Host Violations 

Social Host violations are a misdemeanor offense, but if an adult is investigated, charged, and convicted of these violations, they can be penalized with:

  • A $2000 fine per incident
  • Up to a year in jail
  • Both fines and imprisonment

The simple act of an adult allowing a minor to consume alcohol is enough to violate the social host provision and be charged. But typically, the charges carry more weight because they are associated with other more serious criminal charges like DUI or, in the case of the Coughlin couple – Reckless Endangerment of a Child that resulted in the child’s death. 

With the circumstances surrounding cases like the Coughlin’s, additional force is added because these cases receive extensive media coverage, which leads to public scrutiny and gathering pressure from the victim’s family as they demand justice for their lost child. 

Exceptions of the Social Host Law 

There are defensive arguments one can make regarding the Social Host law. As stated before, an adult cannot be held liable if they were unaware of minors drinking in or on their property. The state must prove an adult knowingly intended to serve alcohol to minors.

It is legal for a minor to drink at home if they have their parent or guardian’s permission. This one exception is explicitly written into the Social Host law, but it is not intended for parents to throw raging parties at their house. It is meant to allow for traditional celebrations or family gatherings when adults in the family can offer wine to the younger members of the family at dinner and certain functions.

But just as alcohol is associated with several traditions and celebrations, it is also linked to bad judgment and criminal offenses. An intoxicated minor anywhere is problematic. Adding other intoxicated minors to that problem only exacerbates the situation. It is important to look out for the youth, to positively influence them, to protect them from dangers outside of the home, to dangers within the home, and often, from themselves.