Calif. grant to help police enforce social host, alcohol laws
By Richard Halstead
The Marin Independent Journal
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — The San Rafael Police Department is receiving state grant money to beef up its enforcement of alcohol-related offenses, just as its new Alcohol Compliance Team got a workout earlier this month.
Authorities say what started as a modest birthday party for a San Rafael teenager March 16 turned into a mob scene with underage youths drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.
An estimated 150 people attended the event, although the 15-year-old host said only 25 were invited guests. The host's parents, who were upstairs all evening, told police they didn't realize how many young people were in their home until neighbors called the police to investigate the loud and unruly party.
San Rafael police Lt. Ralph Pata said the parents were cited under San Rafael's social host ordinance, which holds adults responsible for underage alcohol use in their households whether the adults are present or not. Pata estimated the initial fine at about $250.
"But we're also able to charge for how much it cost for the officers to go out there," he said. "So it can get pretty expensive." He said four officers were dispatched.
The family, which lives on Coast Oak Way in Terra Linda, was not identified by police. Two neighbors contacted Monday said the party didn't bother them.
Joan Loberg said, "With social media, things get out of control. With Facebook and cellphones, the word gets out that there is a party some place, and the parents don't have any control over it."
The county of Marin is passing along state grant money to the San Rafael Police Department to fund extra police staff time for enforcement of the social host ordinance and a range of other alcohol-related offenses: driving under the influence, selling alcohol to people who are already intoxicated and selling alcohol to underage individuals. The department will receive $300,000 over four years to fund its Alcohol Compliance Team; it got its first $75,000 allocation last year.
"It's actually a research project," said Kristen Law, a resource development coordinator with the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services. "The project looks at whether making enforcement of these laws visible to the community prevents underage substance abuse and overuse by adults. It's targeting young people from 12 to 25 years old."
In addition to stepping up enforcement, Law and her coworkers post information about the enforcement actions on Facebook and spread the word by placing advertisements in local papers, such as the Marin Independent Journal.
San Rafael's social host ordinance is hardly an anomaly. Seven other Marin municipalities have social host ordinances, and the remaining four have similar ordinances banning the unlawful gatherings of minors or underage drinking.
Most of the social host ordinances were adopted or amended after two Novato teens, Scott Van Hootegem, 18, and Alex Hunt, 19, were killed in 2005 in a truck accident following an underage drinking party. That year, a San Rafael High School senior was sexually assaulted by three classmates at an underage drinking party.
Marin County sheriff's Capt. Rick Navarro said his department has issued about 45 citations since the county of Marin adopted its social host ordinance in November 2006. Under the county ordinance, violations result in a fine of $750 for the first offense, $1,500 for the second offense and $2,500 for the third offense.
Assistant County Counsel Jack Govi said fewer people have been cited for violating the county law in recent years; 31 of the citations were issued from 2006 to 2009.
Govi said, "Whether there is a correlation between the existence of the ordinance and the numbers going down, I would not venture to comment."
Pata said the social host citation issued to the family on Coast Oak Way was the first for San Rafael this year; he was unable to access information Monday on how many citations were issued in past years.
In early 2011, the Youth Leadership Council issued a report on the widespread implementation of the social host ordinance in Marin County. The council said at least 60 social host citations were issued in Marin from 2006 to 2009.
Law said the countywide numbers for citations hasn't been updated since then.
"Right now we're working with the jurisdictions, trying to get those numbers and trying to create a systematic way for tracking them," Law said.
Copyright 2014 The Marin Independent Journal