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Lawmakers try to stiffen penalties for hosting underage drinkers

About once a month in Pinellas County, an adult is charged with allowing someone underage to drink alcohol at a private home.

But the offense carries what some lawmakers say is a light penalty — you can get more jail time for illegally having an alligator — even if the drinking leads to injury or death.

Now, some legislators are trying to stiffen penalties for the adults who allow house parties with underage drinking.

"I think it's a little bit strange that we protect an alligator more than our children," Rep. Tom Goodson, a sponsor, said told Florida lawmakers recently.

Under Florida law, it's a misdemeanor for an adult hosting a party to not try to stop a someone under 21 from drinking alcohol there. The maximum penalty is 60 days in jail.

The bills (HB 105/SB 746) would increase the punishment to up to a year behind bars, if the case results in serious injury or death, or involves a repeat offender. Maximum fines would go from $500 to $1,000. (Possessing a gator is a felony.)

"I think it's going to be effective to get the message across to adults that it's not acceptable. ... It's better than it is now," said Ellen Snelling, co-chair of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition.

Supporters point to tragic results of the parties.

In 2007, a Clearwater teen named Corey Felty drank and then tried to jump two stories into a pool at a party in Ozona. He missed, crashing into concrete. The injuries left him in a monthlong coma.

The 18-year-old host, Justin Finnerty, pleaded no contest to violating the state's open house party law and possession of alcohol. Adjudication was withheld. Finnerty's sentence included 50 hours of community service and $450 in fines and court costs, records show. Finnerty's parents were out of town at the time.

Felty and his mother, Ginny, sued Finnerty and his family, who denied responsibility, in 2009. Felty and the family attorney did not return messages seeking comment.

The bill still has to pass two Senate committees before getting a full vote. The House is ready for a full vote on its version of the bill, which has sailed through committee hearings.

A similar bill died in a Senate committee last year. Sen. Thad Altman, the sponsor, chalked up the defeat to running out of time.

So far, the only public criticism of the bills has come from defense attorneys, saying the bills are too broad, opening homeowners to too much liability.

Yet the bills don't do everything advocates want. Many would like the crime changed to a felony for tougher sentences.

"But I have been told, "don't ask for that," because of budgetary considerations," Dwight Severs, a Titusville attorney who lost his son Matt in car crash after a party, told lawmakers.

The case spurred Altman and Goodson, Republicans from Brevard County, to file the bills. But making the crime a felony is a tough sell to lawmakers because of additional costs to courts and prisons, Altman said .

Arrests statewide have ranged between 157 and 230 each of the past three years. While 15 people total were charged in Hillsborough in 2009 and 2010 combined, Pasco jailed eight and Pinellas booked 24 people on the charge, sheriffs and prosecutors.

Altman said tougher sanctions and greater awareness could help reduce drinking by teens, and danger on the roads.

"I think this is such an important issue – the No. 1 cause of death among teens is crashes," Altman said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Lawmakers try to stiffen penalties for hosting underage drinkers 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 6:32pm]
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