Criminalizing Communion?: Problems with Underage Drinking Bill

House Bill 1586 passed the Arkansas House Thursday by a vote of 56-35. This is a well-intentioned bill that attempts to solve the problem of underage drinking. Unnfortunately, it’s so expansive that it produces a laundry list of perverse consequences.

Here’s how the bill works: if you have control over private property, and you allow anyone under 21 who isn’t your relative to drink alcohol, or just to stay on the property after they drink alcohol, you’ve committed a class A misdemeanor.

However, if you’re not on the property, you are free from criminal liability, as long as you’re not “present and in control of the private property at the time the consumption occurs.”

Let’s examine how this works in a bit more detail:

If the person who controls the property — call her “Mom” — sticks around while underage drinking occurs, she’s committed a misdemeanor.

Suppose, on the other hand, Mom hears a knock at the door and sees her daughter welcome her best (underage) friends Jane and Mary in; if Mom announces that she’s going across town to catch the 7:15 showing of “Bride Wars” and drives off, she’s free from criminal liability if underage drinking occurs.

Does this bill give an incentive for unmonitored underage drinking to occur? I think so, and I also think that the law would be better if it went the other way — that is, to give an incentive for an adult to stick around and keep an eye on the problem, rather than leave. I understand that a couple of teenagers sitting around drinking beer is hardly an ideal situation, but this new bill makes the problem much worse by discouraging adult monitoring of any kind.

In any case, Mom isn’t out of trouble yet. Suppose she comes back from “Bride Wars” and sees Jane drinking something she shouldn’t. Under this bill, Mom will be a class-A misdemeanant if she allows Jane to remain on the property.

I tend to think that a legal requirement to order a child off your property has its own set of problems. Maybe Jane has a cell phone and can call for a ride, or maybe she can walk home. I hope so, and I hope she hasn’t had much to drink. And I hope it’s not too late at night — especially once the new law we voted for last week kicks in and it’s a ticketable offense for a minor to drive from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Maybe if she has a car outside, her best bet is just to lock the doors and sleep it off.

There are other problems. Remember, the bill says that anybody who exercises control over private property who allows someone under 21 to consume alcohol on that property has committed a crime. This will be a big problem for some religious communities, given that as far as I can tell we have just criminalized children’s Communion. (This is a traditional Catholic practice in which a child takes a tiny, ceremonial sip of wine.) Similar rites take place in some Jewish, Episcopalian, and Lutheran congregations — and probably others, but I am just a lawyer and legislator and not a scholar of comparative religions. But there’s reason to be nervous when it looks like the state legislature is criminalizing traditional religious practices. (You can read the bill text in its entirety here — link opens as PDF file.)

Finally, the problem this bill’s trying to solve is already addressed in current state law. It’s already a criminal offense to “give, procure, or otherwise furnish” alcohol to someone under 21 (and that law, unlike this one, exempts religious ceremonies). It’s also a criminal offense to contribute to the delinquency of a minor. Both of those offenses, already on the books, carry harsher criminal penalties than this bill. In short, the House is once again being tough on crime by legislating against a problem that has already been addressed.

I spoke against this bill on the floor of the House. I wasn’t successful. One of my favorite legislators, the independent-minded Democratic Rep. Pam Adcock, stood up after I spoke and asked the House if this bill could criminalize having a drink with your 20-year-old nephew after he just got back from military service in Iraq. She was right, so was I, and so were about 33 other legislators. Regrettably, we were outnumbered.

After we voted, the bill’s sponsor came over and assured me that the bill would be amended in the Senate to fix some of its problems. I tend to think that the only way to fix this bill’s problems is to run it through a shredder, incinerate the remains and bury what’s left in a big hole.

Comments

  1. An 18 year old kid can fight and die for his country or be maimed for the rest of his/her life, but can’t drink a beer or have a shot of tequila?

    Someone please explain the logic in this please.

  2. Kinkade, that photo is awesome.

  3. “After we voted, the bill’s sponsor came over and assured me that the bill would be amended in the Senate to fix some of its problems.”

    This statement makes me almost angrier than the content of this stupid, big-government authoritarian bill. We are trying to teach youngsters to behave responsibly but here is a state lawmaker (please tell us his name) who pushes through a thoroughly flawed bill and then comes back to say that it needs to be fixed later. This is the sheer irresponsibility of so many of our policy-makers that turn citizens off. Lawmakers like this should be the ones charged with criminal neglect, not responsible parents who are going about their private business in their private homes. It is thoroughly disgusting and I would be surprised if there were not a backlash by Arkansans against this sort of holier-than-thou grandstanding combines with ignorance and irresponsibility.

    One quibble. The paper reports that the bill mandates a minimum sentence of 6 years in prison for people who share a drink of beer with a 20 year old in their home. It doesn’t seem to me that the legislation is lacking in harshness.

  4. Fourche River Rex says:

    If you really want to make the state mad, then give them youngin’s some tobaccy while they are drinkin’. That’s an automatic death sentence.

  5. Man oh Man says:

    You all seem to forget that the Second Amendment is the only one that matters.

    As long as we’re free to carry a hidden pistol, who cares about muzzled newspapers, warrantless searches, habeus corpus or any of those pesky rights designed to keep government out of our business?

  6. Informative explanation of the legislative mind. Appreciate it.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    Let me get this straight: you think this is a bad law because it would prevent adults from “stick[ing] around and keep[ing] an eye on the problem…”

    This is to say that adult property owners should not enforce the law on their property, but should supervise the lawbreaking so as to minimize harm.

    NOT a good idea, ever.

  8. Rich Rostrom, you misrepresent my position. You might consider reading the post more carefully, particular my endorsement of our laws that criminalize furnishing alcohol to kids and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Furthermore, the law has nothing to do with preventing adults from leaving their property. Rather, it gives an incentive for adults to leave their property and ignore the problem if underage drinking might occur. This is a bad idea, and I suspect that the legislation’s drafters gave very little thought to its consequences.

  9. If this country didn’t have such a ridiculously high drinking age, there wouldn’t be a need for laws that criminalize looking the other way.

    Seriously, do they want the kids to just find an empty parking lot or a patch of woods to drink in? and then…drive home I’m assuming…

    Oh yes, much better than drinking at home.

    2 things: people who believe you can stop “underage” drinking are completely delusional.

    In the midst of a terrible recession, with huge deficits in spending and no money to pay for it…we get yet another criminal offense added to the books? The state can’t even afford to keep the people in jail that are already there…and we want to send more people to jail…for drinking alcohol?

  10. Dear Representative Greenberg,

    you seem to be among the few Arkansas legislators who care about privacy and civil rights. There’s a disgusting police state bill (HB 1479) in the making that requires innnocent (and presumably poor) people to be photographed and fingerprinted and placed into a police database for no reason other than to satisfy the law and order fantasies of some lawmakers. You were recently quoted saying sarcastically that “being able to identify people who sell a dollar’s worth of scrap metal is just extremely important to the security of the state”. I wonder though whether you are aware that this bill is not just ridiculous but it is also a blatant violation of constitutional rights of people who have done nothing wrong.

    Is there any other group of people that are required to be fingerprinted and put into a police database by Arkansas law for no reason, no probable cause, no wrongdoing alleged at all? Can you imagine a law requiring bank executives or politicians to be fingerprinted just in case they might turn out to be corrupt, to run a Ponzi scheme or to embezzle on taxpayer bailout money? What about the possibility of abuse of sensitive data and ID fraud? Who controls whether these databases – maintained by scrap metal dealers, for heaven’s sake – are protected from unauthorized access? Why do legislators think it is ok to trample on the dignity of the poor homeless guy who collects cans (oh sure, he might have stolen them!)?

    What this bill will do without a doubt is discourage people from recycling scrap metal. I bought a property in 2007 that was full of trash. Since then I have hauled several loads of scrap metal to the dealer (I kept the receipts – the total was well above 1000 pounds, for which I got between 2.5 and 8 cents). Next week I’ll have to go again. But I certainly won’t if it means being treated like a criminal. To be frank, I am not from Arkansas and I’m often appalled at the large quantity of trash – much of it metal – that people just let lie around on their properties especially in rural areas. It seems the idea doesn’t occur to many people that this is actually a valuable resource that should be recycled. With this bill, one wonders whether lawmakers think Arkansans need to be encouraged to let trash lie around their property rather than recycling it because that’s what keeps our Natural State so beautiful?

    Please tell me that this bill can still be stopped.