Tougher Penalties Sought for Giving Alcohol to Underaged Drinkers

By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - In an effort to curb what they said was an increase in underage drinking and driving, educators, parents, attorneys and alcohol distributors asked lawmakers Thursday to pass legislation that would suspend the driver's license of anyone who provides a minor with alcohol.

"Parents, adults, please - stop giving liquor to your kids," said Mark Yount, a substance abuse prevention coordinator. "Don't let them have alcohol until it's the right time."

The bill would empower judges to suspend the license of a first-time offender for up to six months, and up to a year for repeat offenders. The legislation does not apply to alcohol consumed at home with immediate family members or in religious ceremonies. The bill's primary sponsor, Delegate Tanya Thorton Shewell, R-Carroll, proposed similar legislation last year but it died in committee.

She said that this year's version includes exemptions for religious occasions, as well as more discretionary power for judges and the Motor Vehicle Administration, and has the support of alcohol distributors and local state's attorneys.

"We're hoping we've made those adjustments that were needed last year," she said. "It's hard to predict but we're hoping very much to get it passed."

Similar legislation is already in effect in six states, including Virginia, and three other states are currently considering a license suspension penalty.

Those who testified for the bill said they were targeting the "irresponsibility" of adults who provide alcohol to people under the age of 21, and that they were trying to reduce the amount of access teens have to alcohol.

"House Bill 89 is part of a growing movement to proactively take alcohol out of the hands of underage kids while providing real consequences and not just 'slap on the wrist' fines," said Jonathon Shore, director of the Criminal Justice and Homeland Security Task Force, American Legislative Exchange Council.

Stacy Baran, assistant state's attorney for Carroll County, predicted that if she were able to take away an adult's license for providing alcohol to a minor, "they would never show up in my courtroom again."

Underage drinking has been on the rise in Carroll County, with more than half of high school seniors reporting that they had consumed alcohol in the past 30 days and even increasing rates of alcohol use among 6th graders. However Shewell, who has the support of national organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, warned that the increased use "doesn't just apply to Carroll County."

Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, Sr., R-Cecil, questioned the group about what he called the "nexus" issue of the actual effectiveness of taking away a person's license. He pointed out that the guilty party could still purchase alcohol and give it to minors - with or without the right to drive.

The group responded that the license suspension was more consistent with the penalty for those found guilty of driving while intoxicated or under the influence, making the charges more equal in the eyes of the law. They also said that the current $500 fine for a first offense "didn't seem to phase anyone," and that an additional license suspension would have a more lasting impression.

"I think the committee should try to look past the 'nexus' issue if they can, to try and understand this angle," said Joseph Luppino, government relations director for the North American operations of Diageo, a major liquor and spirits company. "We're trying to hammer this thing from a different perspective."

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