Guest Column (11/25/09)

Defining Vermont’s social host laws

Nov. 25, 2009

By Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain

As the holiday season approaches, some parents will consider allowing their underage children to drink at home during family gatherings.

I have heard many reasons given for this practice, the most popular being, “If my children are drinking at home, at least I know they are drinking responsibly and are in a safe environment” and “My children are going to drink alcohol anyways, so I might as well try to monitor it.”

The bottom line is that in Vermont, providing alcohol to anyone under 21 or providing a minor with a location to drink alcohol is ILLEGAL. I, along with Connecting Youth, want you to know that.

Any person who provides alcohol to a minor or enables the minor to drink alcohol can be charged with a crime (Title7VSA658) and will face up to two years in jail and will be fined not less than $500 and up to $2,000, or both. In addition, if the minor operates a car and is involved in a crash leading to a death or serious injury, the person who gave the minor alcohol or enabled them to drink it shall be imprisoned not more than five years or fined not more than $10,000, or both.

In addition to criminal penalties, Vermont has established civil penalties to emphasize the importance of holding adults responsible if they provide alcohol to minors or enable them to drink. Vermont statutes (Title7VSA501) provide the means for any person who is injured in person, property or means of support by an intoxicated person, or in consequence of the intoxication of any person, to take civil action against the person who sold or furnished the alcohol. This includes anyone who played a role in the furnishing, including people who own the location where the alcohol was consumed, even landlords, if they knew or reasonably should have known that minors were consuming alcohol at the location.

This is not limited to incidents that just take place while the minor is drinking, but includes any future incidents related to the consumption of alcohol. For example, let’s say a parent takes the keys away from a group of minors and allows them to consume alcohol at the parent’s home. The next morning a minor is driving home and he or she is involved in a car crash. If a detectable amount of alcohol remains in the system and contributed in any way to the crash, the parent who hosted this party will be civilly liable to all persons injured and for all property damaged.

Vermont ranks number one in the country for underage drinking and number two for underage binge drinking. According to a 2006 study from the National Survey on Drug Use & Health, among adolescents ages 12 to 20 in Vermont, 38 percent reported alcohol consumption in the past 30 days and 28 percent reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.

Home is the primary source of alcohol among the youngest drinkers. Two of three teens say it is easy to get alcohol from their homes without parents knowing about it and one-third say it is easy to obtain from their own consenting parents.

In a local survey of Chittenden South parents in July of 2009, 25 percent of the parents surveyed said they believe it is okay for youth under 21 to drink. What many parents don’t realize is that alcohol is the leading cause of death among youth, particularly teenagers. It contributes substantially to motor vehicle crashes, other traumatic injuries such as drowning or falls, suicide, date rape and family and school problems. Young people who begin drinking before age 15 are also four times more likely to develop an addiction than those who start after they turn 21.

Regardless of parents’ personal philosophy on this issue, those who allow minors to drink are assuming a huge civil and criminal liability. It is important for parents to be aware that police in Vermont, and certainly the Williston Police Department, have zero tolerance for violations of these statutes. If you furnish alcohol to minors or are a social host for underage drinking, including allowing your own children to drink at home, you will be charged, even if it is your first offense. Whether you agree with the drinking age or not, it is the law. The old adage, “If you are old enough to fight for your country in the military, you should be old enough to drink,” will not prevent you from being arrested.

Connecting Youth and local law enforcement encourage parents to set a positive example for children by following the law.

I hope you all enjoy a safe and peaceful holiday season.


Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain is a member of the Williston Police Department. Connecting Youth is a community-based organization in Chittenden South Supervisory Union dedicated to creating a safe, healthy environment for young people.