Iowa Senate bill cracks down on social hosts serving alcohol to minors

Senate also votes on problems associated with emerald ash borer

DES MOINES – Social hosts who knowingly allow people under the legal drinking age to consume alcoholic beverages on their property could face a criminal misdemeanor charge under a bill that won approval by the Iowa Senate on a 48-0 vote Monday.

“I think this is a small, modest step forward,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and floor manager of Senate File 2310. He said he hoped the bill would help lower the number of young people who drive while under the influence of alcohol by cracking down on adults who let minors drink illegally on their property.

A violation of the proposed social hosting law would be a simple misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $650.

Currently, Hogg said, 22 counties and 26 cities in Iowa have ordinances that prohibit adults from hosting events where alcohol is illegally consumed by underage persons. The proposed legislation would not preempt local ordinances, but it would provide for enforcement of violations statewide.

Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, who voted for the bill, expressed concern over a “gray area” where people over the age of 18 are treated like adults for things like military service but might run afoul of the law in circumstances where communion services are held in people’s homes.

But Hogg countered that the bill did not affect things that already are illegal under Iowa law, it merely attempted to get at private drinking parties where hosts knowingly allow alcohol consumption by minors under the legal drinking age to take place on their property.

The bill now goes to the Iowa House for consideration.

House Judiciary Chairman Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said he gets the point of the bill, “but the devil’s in the details on that one.”

There is some concern, Baltimore said, that the bill doesn’t make clear that the property owner or lessee must have knowledge of alcohol being served to minors to be charged. He said the bill would apply if the owner or lessee “knowingly” permits underage drinking.

Officials in the hometowns of Iowa’s three public universities said they were not opposed to a state social host law, but they believe their local ordinances already accomplish much of what it would do.

The idea of a social host ordinance in Iowa City was discussed in 2009, but only one City Council member supported it. The other members, the city attorney and the police chief said house parties were not a major concern, existing laws did the job OK and it would be too difficult to prove a host knew, or should have known, someone younger than 21 was drinking or in possession of alcohol.

Police Chief Sam Hargadine said Monday that keg registration requirements and the 2012 update of the Iowa City nuisance code that gave officers ways to cite hosts of parties who try to avoid police by not answering the door work well.

“We’ve kind of got workable solutions that are in place instead of the social host law,” he said.

Assistant Iowa City Attorney Eric Goers noted that the Senate bill contains the “knowingly” language that requires specific intent. Saying that he was speaking for himself and not the city, he said the proposed statute may occasionally be an effective tool to combat underage drinking, but it would be difficult to prosecute.

“Oftentimes those (social host) statutes require specific intent, which is difficult to prove,” he said.

Cedar Falls police Capt. Craig Berte said the city’s longstanding disorderly house ordinance covers alcohol violations, underage consumption, disorderly conduct, loud noise, drug use and more. It’s the host of the parties who typically get cited, Berte said.

“Disorderly house would be our social host law that we’ve had on the books a long time,” he said.

Ames has a couple of city laws that hold party hosts responsible for the conduct of guests. One says the people having a party are accountable for underage drinking. Another is a nuisance party regulation that includes underage and unlawful possession of alcohol and other offenses.

“Places like us, we’ve run into this over and over again, so we’ve made our own ordinances for it,” said Ames police Commander Geoff Huff.

In other action Monday, the Senate voted 43-5 to direct the state departments of natural resources and agriculture and land stewardship to establish an advisory committee to develop a statewide comprehensive plan to deal with problems associated with Emerald Ash Borer infestations.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said Senate 2248 is intended to establish a cost inventory to remove and replant trees adversely impacted by the invasive beetle potentially impacting 52 million woodland ash trees and 3 million trees in urban areas. He said the impact in Iowa likely will play out over the next 20 years and could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars” to deal with the infestation.

“You have no idea what you’re facing in your district,” said Sen. Dennis Black, D-Grinnell. “There is no magic wand that is going to take care of this Emerald Ash Borer.”

The bill goes to the Iowa House for consideration.

Also, senators voted 48-0 to change an unintended consequence of a new law that took effect Jan. 1 regarding operator licenses for beginning drivers. Under Iowa law, holders of a graduated driver’s license who are cited for two or more violations face a 30-day suspension while drivers with a school permit face a suspension of driving privileges for up to one year under the same circumstances. Senate File 2288 would change the penalty to a 30-day suspension for a driver with a school permit who is cited for moving violations.

Senators also voted 48-0 to approve measures that would establish an online voter registration option and would change electronic filing provisions for campaign finance reports to boost the filing threshold from $750 to $1,000 for campaign committees, to increase the threshold for individual contributions from $10 to $25, and to require all entities to file electronically with the state Ethics and Campaign Finance Board by Jan. 1, 2015.

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