Mimesis Law
28 April 2017

Sending an Empty Message On Underage Drinking

Dec. 18, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — When I was in high school, which I’d like to think wasn’t that long ago, parents hosting a party where teenagers were drinking happened fairly often. Things have changed, apparently, as the Boston Globe reports on a recent jail sentence for parents who hosted a party at their home:

A Saugus couple will serve jail time for being home during a drinking party in 2013 that was attended by dozens of minors including a teenaged girl who became drunk and had to be hospitalized, prosecutors said.

John and Josephine Penza, 52 and 55 respectively, were at their home Aug. 18, 2013, when their children — one was a recent high school graduate and the other was almost 20 — invited friends over for a party, according to Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

When police responded to a noise complaint at the Palmer Avenue home that night, they found about 70 underage partygoers, including a 16-year-old girl who was drunk in an upstairs bathroom and had to be taken to a hospital. Prosecutors said Josephine Penza instructed the girl to tell police she had food poisoning.

Prosecutors said the evidence introduced at trial included photographs of a table set up for a drinking game and numerous empty alcohol containers.

It does sound bad, especially the part about the teenage girl who had to be hospitalized. However, it’s not totally clear whether she had to be hospitalized because police overreacted, or if she really did require medical help. Having a law office near Arizona State University, an institution whose students have been known from time to time to attend soirées that may involve drinking, I’m frequently surprised by just how willing cops are to hospitalize kids who really aren’t that drunk. Admittedly, I usually get to see the kids in question a few days later, pissed off about an unwanted medical bill and a minor in consumption charge, but the blood alcohol levels often confirm that they probably didn’t need medical intervention. I wouldn’t be shocked if the girl didn’t really need the help.

Furthermore, what sounds even worse is that, according to prosecutors, one of the parents told the girl to tell police she had food poisoning. I can’t imagine there’s a good explanation for that, but I’m guessing from the parents’ lawyer’s statements that the defense might disagree that it happened. After all, even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, he provides a pretty obvious motive for the drunken girl painting the hosting parents in the worst possible light:

He said the 16-year-old girl identified by prosecutors “testified under a promise by the District Attorney’s Office that she would not be prosecuted for her own criminal acts.”

It seems no child is too young and no case too minor for snitching these days. Here, it’s especially interesting because the actual harm in what the parents did was the harm she did to herself. Sure, she’s not quite an adult, but the Penzas probably didn’t tie her down, force open her mouth, and pour alcohol down her throat. That she is a teenager, no doubt in trouble with her own parents as well as authorities, adds lots of incentive to shift blame.

As expected, the Penzas paint a story that’s not quite as bad as the authorities’ story:

“It should be clearly understood that the Penza’s were not accused, nor convicted, of actually providing alcohol to minors.”

O’Brien said his clients were not drinking and spent most of their time inside the house during the party.

“They clearly should have been spending more time out in their yard, keeping a closer eye on the arrival of kids, who were responding to social media ‘invitations,’” O’Brien said.

It’s probably a situation where everyone is adjusting the narrative to make them look as good as possible. The girl probably had the time of her life until she went too far and felt like shit, and then she snitched to save herself. The parents probably knew exactly what was going on and then feigned ignorance. Now, they’re spinning competing stories about an innocent girl victimized by irresponsible parenting and some sober but mildly neglectful parents hanging out in some far corner of the house, unaware of kids arriving in hordes due to social media. Reality, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle.

Unfortunately, there’s a disturbing aspect to the message authorities are trying to send:

Saugus police Chief Domenic DiMella said in a statement that the case should serve as a reminder to parents that they could face charges under the state’s Social Host Law if their underage children are caught hosting a party where alcohol is served.

“Do not be tempted to allow your son or daughter to have friends over to drink, especially during the holidays or end of the year celebrations,” he said.

The police chief’s comments suggest that there’s something inherently bad about letting your kids have friends over when they may drink; that it isn’t just a problem because it’s illegal, but because it’s wrong. The stiff sentence seems intended to send the same message:

A Peabody District Court jury convicted the Penzas on Dec. 7. They were each sentenced to nine months in the House of Correction. They will serve 30 days and the balance will be suspended for two years.

During those two years, they must remain drug- and alcohol-free, and perform 50 hours of community service.

“Parents can no longer turn a blind eye when it comes to underage drinking,” Blodgett said in a statement. “The sentence imposed underscores the seriousness of the offense, and I hope will send a message to other parents who think letting young people drink in their home is no big deal.”

Thirty days seems like an enormous amount of time given the offense, as I’m actually not so sure that society wouldn’t be better served letting minors get together and drink at their parents’ houses. The reality for most teenagers is that their parents are lame and their friends have far more influence on what they do or don’t do. Drinking is going to be cool to them, just like it has been for generations of teens before them, and they are going to do it no matter what. Not letting parents monitor it teaches them to hide their drinking, which isn’t exactly the best message.

Plus, if we did stamp out parties hosted by parents, kids would just find new places to do it. With house parties, at least one kid is already home, and in the event of an emergency, there’s an adult around. If they’re driving out in the countryside to do it, every last one of them is going to have to get home somehow, and there are going to be automobiles involved. Kids who drink too much, like the one who apparently drank too much at the Penzas’ house, may end up dying alone in the woods or at best getting a drunk ride to the hospital. Plus, the result when kids with no experience with alcohol find themselves completely unleashed at college is rarely a good one.

I’m not at all convinced about the seriousness of the offense, and I’m downright confused about the requirement that the Penzas remain alcohol-free for two years. Unless they allowed the party because they were too impaired to stop it, something the article suggests was not the case, I can’t see any rational basis for that part of the sentence except to further fuel the desire to send a message to other parents who think letting young people drink in their home is no big deal. But with that sort of goal, pretty much anything that makes things a little worse for the Penzas becomes fair game at sentencing. Maybe that’s the point.

The Penzas won’t be getting my vote for parents of the year, but something isn’t quite right about their conviction and especially their sentence. If they really did know there were 70 kids boozing it up, were aware many of them were doing it to excess, and then coached a girl to lie when caught, throwing the book at them isn’t going to have even the tiniest effect on any responsible parent who maybe lets their kid sample a drink on occasion or fails to catch it every time their kid has friends over and one of them sneaks in a flask. There’s no message at all to normal parents, except that some outliers got punished for a mistake they’d never make anyway.

On the other hand, if authorities do intend to send the message to parents that turning a blind eye when it comes to underage drinking is bad and that simply hosting a party where underage drinking might happen is a serious offense, the message is empty. Reasonable minds can differ about whether the law compounds the problem it’s meant to solve, and it’s all but unenforceable except in the most extreme situations. No matter how much police and other parents may demand helicopter parenting, there are still going to be stubborn people who insist on making their own decisions and raising their children as they see fit. The Penzas’ sentence is never going to change that.

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