Pines Incident Highlights Underage Drinking Debate

BERLIN – An incident last week where the Ocean Pines Police Department issued 62 citations for underage drinking at a single residence, coupled by several cases reported recently involving parents providing alcohol to underage children and their friends, both locally and nationally, has sparked an ethical debate about teen drinking and adult supervision, but one issue that is not debatable is the criminal liability of the action.

Last week, Ocean Pines police issued 62 citations for underage drinking at a private residence on White Sail Circle. While there were no adults present at the party and no evidence any adults provided alcohol to the cited minors, the case does serve as a catalyst for a discussion of an age-old question about allowing one’s children and their friends to drink in the home as long as precautions are taken such as taking car keys and forcing the soon-to-be-inebriated youths to spend the night.

Each parent handles the underage drinking issue in his or her own way with obviously mixed results, but many prefer to have their children, whom they assume are going to drink anyway, consume their alcohol at home where they can be supervised, rather than in a car or field or a parking lot somewhere. However, local law enforcement officials said this week in no uncertain terms it is a criminal offense to host parties for underage drinkers with serious consequences, regardless of the good intentions.

“It is absolutely a criminal offense and we wouldn’t hesitate for a second to charge an adult, any adult, to the fullest extent of the law if we came across a case like that,” said Ocean Pines Police Chief Dave Massey, who said there were no adults present at the incident in the Pines last week. “We’ve heard the arguments in favor of allowing one’s child to drink at home, but it is absolutely against the law. There are no gray areas on this for us.”

Earlysville, Va. mother Elisa Kelly found out recently just how serious the legal system is when it comes to parents hosting parties for their underage children and their friends. Earlier this month, Kelly bought beer for her 16-year-old son and 20 of his friends under the condition each of them would turn their car keys over to her and spend the night at her home. A concerned neighbor alerted the police and Kelly was arrested for providing alcohol to minors. Last week, she was sentenced to 27 months, or over two years, in jail for the felony charge.

In a case closer to home, a Bethesda soccer club coach and a large number of students from Walt Whitman High School were arrested at a residence in Dewey Beach last week after the coach hosted a party for his players and their friends, many of whom were underage. Nino Marcantonio, 25, of Bethesda, was charged with 18 counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count each of maintaining a dwelling for the use of illegal drugs, providing alcohol to an underage person and disorderly use of a dwelling.

Similar cases have been reported all over the country as another graduation season has just passed. Many more go unreported or undiscovered including some right here in Worcester County and Ocean City, according to Massey.

“We know it goes on,” he said. “Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot we can do about it unless we get information about them or we happen upon them for another reason.”

Hopefully, those other reasons aren’t the result of some tragedy involving an underage drinker who was at a party hosted by an adult. Massey said it is a criminal offense in Maryland to host a party of underage drinkers and pointed to a variety of consequences, most of which aren’t good. He said the drinking and driving issue is near the top in terms of importance, but there are known links between underage drinking and other crimes.

“The consequences of this can be tragic,” he said. “There’s the whole drinking and driving thing, of course, but we see all kinds of crimes when people’s judgments are impaired by alcohol, particularly among minors. We see incidents of fighting and violence, date rape, vandalism and all kinds of disorderly conduct.”

Ocean City obviously sees more than its fair share of the latter, but, like Ocean Pines, often has difficulty finding cases of adults hosting parties or providing alcohol to minors until some incident occurs. Thousands of graduating seniors flock to the resort for Senior Week each year and more than a few are provided with alcohol by adults, but the number of arrests made for providing alcohol to minors is relatively low compared to the number of arrests for inebriated minors for a wide variety of reasons.

“We haven’t seen too much of that,” said Ocean City Police Spokesman Barry Neeb. “We know it goes on and when we do have proof alcohol was provided to minors by adults, we’ll make arrests and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, but it’s often difficult to prove. When we do have proof, though, we don’t hesitate to make arrests.”

Many parents believe they are protecting their underage children by furnishing alcohol to them and hosting parties for them at home, but the practice sends the wrong message in most cases, according to experts.

“In many cases, parents do this under the false assumption that they are protecting their kids,” said Robert Lindsey, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. “They make the assumption that they won’t drink elsewhere and that’s not true.”