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Suffolk strengthens social host law to deter underage drinking

Suffolk social host law

A bill to strengthen Suffolk County’s “social host” law was unanimously approved at last Tuesday’s county Legislature meeting in Hauppauge.

It’s a move advocates on the North Fork say will help deter parents and other adults from allowing underage drinking in their homes.

The social host law, first approved in 2007, makes it illegal for anyone over age 18 who owns or rents a home to “knowingly allow the consumption of alcohol or alcoholic beverages by any minor” on the premises.

The law also punishes any homeowner or tenant who fails to take corrective action after learning that alcohol is being consumed by minors there.

The approved bill raises the penalty category of the social host law from a violation to a misdemeanor.

According to Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley, that change will make it easier for police to investigate potential instances of underage drinking.

“Misdemeanor gives law enforcement broader approach to charging someone,” Chief Flatley said. “We don’t have to physically observe it. We can put together a case based on statements from witnesses.”

Mr. Flatley said the town police department was among the first to charge someone under the social host law, but has made few arrests since the law was enacted.

“I don’t think we’re seeing as much this year,” he said. “I think parents are very in tune with this, that there is a social hosting law.”

County officials said Tuesday that the change was suggested by the county police commissioner because the original law, which did require authorities to observe the underage drinking, was difficult to enforce.

They said there haven’t been any convictions under the law since it took effect and only four tickets have been issued by Suffolk County police.

Laura Jens-Smith, program coordinator for the anti-substance abuse group North Fork Alliance, said the change will “give a little more meat” to the hosting law’s consequences.

“It’s all based on consequences,” she said. “If the consequences are greater, the likelihood of doing something is less.”

The new social host law still carries a fine of up to $500 for a first offense and up to $1,000 or one year in jail for subsequent offenses.

According to a survey by the North Fork Alliance, the percentage of students on the North Fork who have admitted to drinking alcohol at some point has dropped slightly, from 54.5 percent in 2012 to 49.9 percent last year.

However, roughly 20 percent of students said they’ve recently consumed five or more drinks in a row, a percentage that has remained stable since 2012.

“Binge drinking is a huge problem out here,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. “It’s not just how many kids are drinking, it’s that when they’re drinking, they’re drinking more in one session.”

And while most North Fork students who participated in the survey are reporting they’re getting alcohol from parties, nearly 38 percent said in 2015 that they’d received alcohol from a parent in the past year. Fifty-five percent of students said they got alcohol from an adult.

Felicia Scocozza, executive director of Riverhead Community Awareness Program, said her group’s research uncovered similar findings.

According to CAP’s research from 2016, 28.6 percent of eighth-graders, 34.9 percent of 10th-graders and 48.3 percent of 12th-graders in Riverhead who drank in the past year reported that they did so at someone else’s home with a parent’s permission. At the same time, the number of students who reported drinking in their own homes with their own parents’ permission has steadily declined, Ms. Scocozza said.

“This data indicates that there may be a handful of parents that allow underage drinking in their homes, but youth who drink seem to know which homes those are,” she said. “Unfortunately, parents who allow underage drinking in their homes are not only breaking the law, they are putting other people’s children at risk.”

Ms. Scocozza applauded the change to the social hosting law, saying it comes just in time for prom and graduation season.

However, the law did not pass the county Legislature without debate.

Legislator Lou D’Amaro (D-North Babylon) supported the law but had questions about it beforehand.

Accusing an adult of allowing youths to drink alcohol “is a very he-said, she-said kind of offense,” he said, adding that he believes the previous requirement that the offense be witnessed by law enforcement was intended to protect people from “improper allegations.”

Others disagreed.

“An adult making it harder to raise someone else’s children is the most irresponsible thing you can do in the world,” said North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue.)

“I love this law and I’m 100 percent supportive of it,” said South Fork Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), an attorney.

The law still needs the county executive’s signature to take effect.

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