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Article updated: 2/22/2013 10:47 AM

New law targets adults who allow underage drinking

By Russell Lissau

Illinois' newly enacted social hosting law is an opportunity for parents to work with police to curb underage drinking, one suburban chief said.

"I think it's a great start," Wauconda Police Chief Douglas Larsson said of the law, which was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last summer and became effective Jan. 1. "It makes our job a lot easier."

Forty-three percent of underage drinkers said they consume alcohol at a party when parents are home, according to data available at centurycouncil.org, a website run by the distilling industry.

In Illinois, 39 people under the age of 21 died in alcohol-related car crashes in 2010, the website reported.

State Rep. Carol Sente, the Vernon Hills Democrat who introduced the legislation in 2011, called underage drinking an "epidemic problem." Targeting adults -- and not just parents -- is vital, she said.

"We need to send a loud message that when you're not of age, you can't drink," she said.

Illinois' law focuses on adults who knowingly allow underage drinking at their homes or other private properties under their control.

Violating the law is a misdemeanor punishable by fines of at least $500. If the drinking leads to significant injury or death, the charge can be bumped up to a felony that could result in incarceration.

Adults won't be considered in violation if they take reasonable steps to end underage drinking after it's discovered, such as trying to remove minors who are drinking or ending the party.

Likewise, people won't be charged if they call the police for help after first trying to stop the underage drinking on their own.

"Parents are often afraid to call the police for help when a problem arises," Larsson said. "An arrest is not necessarily the first or only solution."

Adults must call police before anyone else complains to authorities about the drinking, the law states. Although, if parents are trying to quash a party as police are en route, that's probably going to be seen as a good-faith effort, Cary Police Chief Steve Casstevens said.

"We're looking to hold parents responsible who are knowingly hosting or knowingly allowing this to happen and doing nothing," Casstevens said.

Because the law isn't limited to homes, police are able to use it to crack down on underage drinking at hotels and other sites, too. With many hotels in town, that's a particular concern for Lincolnshire Police Chief Peter Kinsey.

Such incidents arise "from time to time" at Lincolnshire hotels. Typically, someone 21 or older rents a room, stages a party and supplies underage guests with alcohol, Kinsey said.

"This way, you can hold the person renting that room accountable," Kinsey said.

The law follows the independent creation of social hosting ordinances in towns across the state.

Antioch, Buffalo Grove, Gurnee, Lindenhurst, Mundelein, Park Ridge and Wauconda are among the towns in the Chicago area that adopted rules before the General Assembly took up the issue.

Those local ordinances were prompted, in part, by some high-profile deaths that were connected to underage drinking parties.

Police in towns with their own social-hosting ordinances will have the option of charging parents under the local rules or the more-powerful state law.

And if officers discover the case was more serious than initially thought, they can upgrade charges later, Larsson said.

Connecticut, Mississippi and Oklahoma are among the other states with social hosting laws.

Wauconda's Larsson believes society's views on underage drinking at home are changing rapidly. It's generally no longer permissible, he said, even though it was a generation or two ago.

"The level of social consciousness has been raised significantly in the last decade," he said.

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