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Hosting underage drinkers could be criminalized in Perham

Perham could be the latest in a long string of communities in Minnesota to enact a Social Host Ordinance.

The ordinance, which holds adults criminally responsible when they knowingly provide a place for underage drinking, was the subject of a discussion between city leaders at a meeting last Wednesday.

Since 2007, more than 90 cities and 22 counties in Minnesota have enacted this type of ordinance. Otter Tail County did so in May, and now efforts are being made to get individual communities within the county to hop on board as well.

While Perham leaders have made no final decision on the ordinance yet, city councilors are expected to take action on it in the future. If approved, the ordinance would apply to all areas within city limits; areas outside the city are already covered by the county ordinance.

Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby told councilors that existing underage drinking laws are good, but not quite enough.

"Right now, law applies only to furnishing alcohol (to minors)," be said.

Hoaby explained that it can be difficult to prove exactly who buys or gives alcohol to minors, whereas it's usually easier to prove where a party with underage drinking took place.

"The Social Host Ordinance covers some loopholes in the current law," he said.

The ordinance under consideration, which was proposed in Perham by Otter Tail County's Safe Communities Coalition, is word-for-word the same one enacted by the county. It includes any gathering where underage drinking occurs, on private or public property.

The ordinance would not apply to bars and other establishments with a liquor license, Hoaby said, as "there are already other laws to cover things that happen" at those places.

Jane Patrick, coordinator of the Safe Communities Coalition, told councilors last week that the coalition is trying to get every community in the county on board with the ordinance, in an effort to discourage underage possession and consumption of alcohol.

Language in the ordinance states that underage drinking is detrimental to the health and safety of youth, and that holding adults accountable for hosting a gathering where underage drinking occurs creates a deterrent effect.

The ordinance does not apply to parents or other adults who are unaware that underage drinking has occurred. For example, parents of a 17-year-old high school student who throws a party while they're away would not be charged if they were unaware of the party.

Hoaby said every situation would have to be looked at individually.

Among all possible scenarios, Patrick said, "this ordinance is most likely applied to the 21 to 25-year-old population, where younger ones are drinking at parties."

She said the ordinance has already been used "quite a bit" in outer townships and other areas around Otter Tail County since being enacted.

Patrick was also in New York Mills recently to propose the ordinance there; city councilors are considering it.