Nelson, Spitzer Clash Over Proposed Underage Drinking Law

Spitzer-Nelson

Orange County Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer. (Photos by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday delayed voting on new criminal penalties for allowing underage drinking at home after two supervisors openly clashed over whether it would save lives or encroach on civil liberties.

Federal researchers say underage alcohol use "is more likely to kill young people than all illegal drugs combined," leading to more than 4,700 deaths each year among underage youths.

The proposed “social host” ordinance would levy a $750 fine on people “in control” of a property who knowingly allow alcohol consumption by underage people at gatherings with at least three people. A second violation would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

It would apply to Orange County’s unincorporated areas, including North Tustin, Rossmoor, Midway City, Orange Park Acres, Ladera Ranch and others, with about 120,000 residents in all.

“This is another avenue by which we can address individuals who are drinking and may do harm to themselves or others," said Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

But the measure goes way too far for Chairman Shawn Nelson, whose libertarian philosophy was at odds with Spitzer’s activism on victims’ rights and drunk driving.

“I have a real concern when we start making one adult responsible for the behavior of another adult," said Nelson, referring to the fact that homeowners could be fined for allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drink.

“If we think we’re going to stop all these tragedies by getting further and further into people’s homes and lives, you’re not,” Nelson said.

Spitzer shot back, recalling the case of an intoxicated driver who crashed into another car in Cypress at around 100 miles per hour, sending it flying and killing a passenger.

“That changed my life,” said Spitzer, adding that “when people say we don’t have an opportunity to affect public policy to potentially save people’s lives … I think [that] is potentially underestimating the gravity of what we can do.”

Nelson wasn’t moved.

“This unfortunately isn’t a contest about who cares more about people being injured,” he said, also pointing out the rare presence of television news crews.

“Someone called TV cameras, and I know who. And I just got to tell you, the grandstanding for this opportunity frankly to me, it’s a little bit offensive.”

Spitzer, meanwhile, said his effort is aimed squarely at addressing an underage drinking crisis that destroys countless lives.

The current laws are “actually ensuring that people, including the police, do not have any way to address” most house parties where underage drinking takes place, Spitzer said.

Supervisors ultimately pushed back the vote to Dec. 10, in order to work through civil liberties concerns by a majority of the board.

In introducing the ordinance, Spitzer pointed to the death of his former chief of staff, Steve Ambriz. who was killed in 2006 by a driver under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine.

“I vowed from then on that I would focus a lot of my elective office energies into doing whatever I could to reduce drinking and driving” in California, said Spitzer.

Spitzer’s colleagues hit the pause button after civil rights concerns were raised.

Police currently can’t enter a house simply because they believe underage drinking is happening inside, officials said, while the social host ordinance would allow them to make entry into a home or backyard in such cases.

“Our system is not set up to give police unbridled authority to go into people’s houses. We have civil liberties for a reason,” said Nelson.

Nelson envisioned a scenario where three 20-year-old Marines return from Afghanistan and gather at a house for drinks.

“And somehow the homeowner’s responsible? ‘Stop those people or else’?” Nelson said.

Spitzer, meanwhile, said he hasn’t heard of any lawsuits claiming civil liberties violations under such laws or of citizens complaining it’s being abused.

Plus, he pointed out, the county’s own staff have signed off on the legality of his proposal.

“We do believe that we would be in compliance with the civil rights laws,” said Deputy County Counsel James Harman.

Supervisor Pat Bates, meanwhile, said she also has “serious concerns” about the civil liberties implications.

“You can have three [people] in your home, and you can have two that are 22 and one that is 20-and-a-half and someone that reports them for whatever reason,” said Bates.

“It’s too restrictive the way it’s written,” she said.

“We’ve had something like this before where it’s righteous and emotional and maybe unconstitutional,” added Supervisor John Moorlach, referring to a county ordinance banning sex offenders from parks.

Several police, health and education officials joined Spitzer in voicing their support for the ordinance Tuesday. More than 150 cities or counties nationwide and 33 states have passed social host ordinances, including several in Orange County, advocates said.

“This is a movement, and it’s going in the right direction,” said Lynn Posey, community development specialist at Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach.

In Garden Grove, Police Chief Kevin Raney said its social host law “seems to be working initially.”

Meanwhile, Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Trish Kelley says such social host ordinances serve as a deterrent to underage drinking in homes.

“When they know there is a cost and a consequence, the activity is deterrent,” said Kelley, who helped introduce her city’s ordinance in 2008.

“The fact that we’ve only had to use it 12 times shows that it really has provided a deterred. The word really was on the street,” she said.

That city also passed a multiple-call ordinance Monday night, levying citations if sheriff’s deputies are called to a party more than once in an evening.

Irvine Deputy Police Chief Mike Hamel pointed to a recent case to emphasize the need for such ordinances.

After being called to a house party, Hamel said, Irvine police saw a 16-year-old girl who was face down on the front lawn, vomiting in a bucket, and had to be taken to a hospital for alcohol poisoning.

The officers saw that teenagers clearly had been drinking at the house, all while parents were upstairs, he said.

Hamel added that the social host law allowed Irvine police “to take action.”

Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carchio, a former high school basketball coach, called alcohol a “menace to society.”

When it comes to youths, alcohol is “causing more harm and death than all illegal drugs combined,” Carchio added, pointing to a study that found nearly 3,200 deaths a year resulting from alcohol abuse by minors.

The study by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol found that alcohol abuse by minors costs $62 billion each year in damages nationwide, including traffic crashes, violence, teen pregnancies, STDs, burns, alcohol poisoning and property damage.

A representative of the Orange County superintendent of schools, Al Mijares, called underage drinking a “serious public safety concern.”

Given a recent surge in prescription drug abuse, Supervisor Pat Bates wondered why the ordinance doesn’t also ban controlled substances, such as those at “alcohol and pill parties” that take place in her South Orange County district.

“This is controversial enough as it is,” said Spitzer. “I am more than happy to address that,” but “I didn’t want to bite off more than I can chew at this point.”

And Moorlach asked whether certain unincorporated areas, such as Rossmoor in his district, could have lower or higher fines than other areas.

County Counsel Nick Chrisos replied that he’d have to research the issue but believed that any criminal penalties must be uniform across the board’s entire jurisdiction.

People fined under the ordinance could appeal to the county clerk of the board’s office, which would hire an administrative hearing officer to make a determination.

If someone refuses to pay the fine, the county would escalate its collections effort, starting with written notices, then reporting it to credit agencies and ultimately filing suit in small claims court for wage garnishments.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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