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What the Orange County Social Host Law Means to You:

In the wake of community outrage over the December, 2015 death of fire fighter and beloved former Pine Bush High School student, Justin Speights, Orange County is fighting back against turning a blind eye to underage drinking.

Most of us are aware of house parties where teens gather and, well, drink. Not to mention proms, graduation, summer holidays, football season, formals, and any reason or no reason at all to congregate and drink.  We adults can no longer bury our head in the sand and say, I had no idea, they were in the basement, I had no clue what they were doing.

Orange County Executive, Steven M. Neuhaus, signed legislation on March 1st putting into motion Orange County’s first Social Host Law.  What does it mean? Will you get into trouble? What kind of trouble can you get into? Who is considered a social host?  This article answers these questions and more so you can be a more responsible social host.

The “Who”: You, me, and anyone else who is over the age of 18 can be charged under this local law. That means, if you aren’t home and your child hosts a party where there are minors (under the age of 21) including themselves, and drinking, you and they can all be charged. The law applies to any person over the age of 18 who rents, owns or otherwise has control over a premises where there is underage drinking.

The “What”: Any person, over the age of 18, who “knowingly” allows the consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21 on such premises OR upon learning of said underage consumption fails to take reasonable corrective action can be charged under this local law.

You might ask, what if I truly had no idea my child and his friends were in my basement drinking and I just happened to walk in on them? The local law takes into account those persons who truly didn’t “know”, as long as you then take “reasonable corrective measures”.  A “reasonable corrective measure” under the local law is either: 1) a prompt demand that the minor stop drinking alcohol immediately and they in fact stop; or 2) if the minor fails to stop after you make such a demand, you must promptly report the underage drinking to either a law enforcement official or a person who has authority over that minor, such as a parent or guardian.

You may say, I’ll just pretend I didn’t “know” they were drinking if the police show up. Well, if the police show up and determine you should have had reason to be aware of the underage drinking, they can hold you responsible and charge you under this law.

The “Where”: any place, be it a home, apartment, condominium, etc., public or private, including yards and open areas adjacent thereto.  For example, some places you wouldn’t imagine liability under this law, but there certainly is, is the local fire house, the County Park, and a gathering in the open field along side your house.

Are there exceptions to this law? The simple answer is yes, but they are very limited. First, if the underage drinker’s parents are present at the premises and they have expressly permitted the consumption.  Second, and lastly, the consumption of the alcoholic beverage by the underage drinker was for religious purposes.

So how much trouble can I actually get in?

The first offense under this law is a ‘violation’ and not a crime. Crimes are considered any offense at the misdemeanor or felony level.  The punishment for the first offense is a $500 fine and the completion of an alcohol awareness program and/or community service not to exceed 30 hours.

The second offense under this law is a class A misdemeanor. This is a crime.  The punishment is either a fine of $1,000 or a term of imprisonment in County Jail not to exceed 1 year, or both the fine and imprisonment as determined by the local justice your case is before.

Keep in mind, in addition to being charged under Orange County’s Social Host Law, the police may also charge you under New York’s penal laws.  For example, you may additionally be charged with Endangering the Welfare of a Child (class A misdemeanor) and/or Unlawfully Dealing with a Child (class A misdemeanor) which carry their own fines and penalties.

So you pay your fine, who gets it? The local law has designated that all fines collected from defendants under this law shall go to an account designated by the County’s Commissioner of Finance. In other words, the County keeps the fines.

Now what? Be responsible, don’t let underage children drink at your house, and if you catch them being sneaky, take immediate action and stop them. Orange County has had too many children and teens die as a result of drunk driving and, as with Justin Speights, alcohol-induced violence.  Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children nor should a community grieve the loss of one more child.

In the event you or your adult child (18 and above) are charged under this law, or any of the companion penal law statutes, it is important to seek legal advice and counsel immediately, even if it is from the police station, to ensure your legal rights are protected.

 Andrea L. Dumais is an associate attorney with the firm and practices Family, Matrimonial and Criminal Law.  She can be reached by   phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.

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