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February 3, 2010 > County strengthens ordinance on social host responsibility

County strengthens ordinance on social host responsibility

Submitted By Gwendolyn Mitchell

The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors unanimously approved revisions to the County Ordinance on Social Host Responsibility, January 26. Amendments clarify language to support the year-old ordinance's main purpose: to deter under-age drinking.

"This ordinance is another tool for law enforcement to address the serious problem of under-age drinking; I think the changes proposed by the Sheriff's Office and the Administration will make the ordinance more effective," said Supervisor Don Gage, Vice-Chair of the Board's Public Safety and Justice Committee and a champion of County efforts to curtail under-age drinking. "I shall ask the administration to monitor the ordinance's use, including exemptions and, if it needs to be further refined, to feel free to propose additional modifications in the future."

The County Ordinance on Social Host Responsibility enables sheriff deputies to respond to community complaints about raucous parties and imposes administrative penalties on persons responsible for organizing these social gatherings where there are four or more persons and at least one under-age person who is drinking or has in his or her possession an alcoholic beverage.

Ordinance modifications clarify language and facilitate enforcement. They allow law enforcement to focus on responsible persons who have direct control over a premise and impose a $350 fine upon all responsible persons present at the first violation, a written warning notice of violation to all absent responsible persons and additional fines for subsequent violations. The ordinance also includes an annual evaluation of policies and programs non-profit institutions of higher learning have in place for the lawful and responsible use of alcohol, which only applies if the school is in the County's jurisdiction and seeks an exemption from the ordinance.

"These revisions have made the ordinance stronger and will help us work together to deter an illegal and harmful behavior among under-age residents," said Supervisor Ken Yeager, President of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. "We're committed to keeping our community healthier and safer."

Stanford University was given a one-year temporary exemption when the County's Social Host Responsibility for Under-age Drinking Ordinance took effect on January 1, 2009, and the County agreed to a permanent exemption if Stanford complies with three conditions imposed by the County.

First, the County has effectively bestowed upon Stanford the first line of responsibility for addressing under-age drinking and requires Stanford's programs and policies be reviewed and approved annually by its designee for alcohol and drug services. The exemption is conditioned on this approval.

Second, because this ordinance exempts Stanford officers and agents, even if an employee knowingly permits under-age drinking, the County insisted on assurances from Stanford that it has appropriate sanctions in place to address misbehavior on the part of its employees. Stanford has provided this policy to the County.

Third, Stanford must bear the cost of all public safety responses related to under-age drinking so it is not a drain on public resources. Stanford agrees with these three provisions.

Modifications to the County's Social Host Responsibility Ordinance will be effective on March 9, 2010, and include these specific language and enforcement amendments:

"First Violation, First Fine" A $350 first occurrence fine will be imposed to all responsible persons present, and a warning notice of violation will be written to all absent responsible persons. The previous ordinance only called for a warning for the first violation. Second and subsequent violations will impose a $700 fine to all responsible persons present and $350 to all responsible persons previously noticed. Public Safety response cost is assessed to all responsible persons previously cited or noticed and administrative fines escalate by each subsequent violation. Violations are tracked by location and names of responsible persons.

"Responsible Person" includes parents, tenants, party hosts and party organizer and party hosts younger than 18 years. The modification allows law enforcement to focus on responsible persons who have direct control over a premise. It makes permanent the exemption for landlords and management agents but the County reserves the right to cite landlords if they knowingly permit under-age drinking on their premises.

Non-profit institutions of higher education in unincorporated areas need to have policies and programs in place with respect to the lawful and responsible use of alcohol by resident students. These policies and programs will be reviewed and approved annually by the County's designee responsible for drug and alcohol programs and the institution will bear all actual costs incurred for annual data and program review and public safety responses for alcohol-related emergencies.

Eight cities and towns in Santa Clara County (Gilroy, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and Saratoga) currently have their own social host ordinances. Santa Clara County's Social Host Ordinance applies solely to unincorporated areas in Santa Clara County. Enforcement will be triggered by neighborhood complaints or reports of under-age drinking.

To ensure the ordinance is effectively used by sheriff deputies, the County will schedule training sessions for the Sheriff's Office. The County also plans to follow up with a noise ordinance revision in the future, as complaints of noise at social gatherings are increasing.

The County of Santa Clara Ordinance on Social Host Responsibility for Under-age Drinking became effective on January 1, 2009, to allow law enforcement to cite "responsible persons" for hosting, or otherwise facilitating a gathering where under-age drinking occurs. On January 26, the Board approved revisions to this ordinance to strengthen its effect. It imposes administrative fines and charges for public safety response costs for ordinance violations. Recalcitrant parents and other responsible persons who repeatedly allow under-age drinking parties on their property face fines up to $1,000 plus cost recovery for each public safety response.

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