Parents targeted in alcohol campaign State's attorney vows get-tough approach on underage drinking

March 02, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Parents who let children have booze parties at home beware: Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon wants to see you in criminal court.

"Parents need to send a strong message that a law is a law and you don't violate the law," McLendon said.

The state's attorney's office recently prosecuted a Clarksville woman who threw a party for her 15-year-old daughter where, prosecutors say, alcohol was served. McLendon wants to see more parents charged criminally for such acts.

In the past, Howard parents or adults found to have furnished minors with alcohol or allowed teen-age drinking parties were usually given civil citations.

Now McLendon says she hopes to prosecute more adults under a statute that carries criminal penalties for contributing to law-breaking by children.

The prosecution of Nancy Chrisman last month was the first case of its type in Howard County, McLendon said.

Chrisman, who could have received a three-year jail sentence and a $2,500 fine, pleaded guilty. She was put on probation, ordered to complete 40 hours of community service, write an essay on the wrongfulness of her actions and apologize in writing to the parents of the teens at her daughter's party.

Law enforcement officials allege that Chrisman bought at least one case of a flavored malt beverage for the 13-guest party in June and, when that ran out, went to get more. The county's alcoholic beverage inspector, Detective Martin Johnson, posed as a parent to call Chrisman after the party. Chrisman told him that she bought the malt beverage because it was her daughter's birthday wish, he said.

She was charged under the law that makes it an offense "to contribute to, encourage, cause or tend to cause any act" that is illegal for children.

Chrisman vehemently denies Johnson's account and says she did not know the girls were drinking. When she found out, she threw the alcohol away, she said.

She said she pleaded guilty to the criminal charge of contributing to law-breaking by children because she felt responsible because she did not insist on knowing exactly what the girls were doing.

"No kid is going to let you sit in [on a party], and that's what parents are going to have to do now," Chrisman said in an interview.

Cpl. David Suggs, an officer in the alcohol enforcement unit, said parents who plead ignorance of their children's actions are not necessarily immune.

"If I think that the parent has the least little clue or is at least turning their head [to drinking], then I think charges are appropriate," Suggs said.

Chrisman was originally given a civil citation, but McLendon called the Police Department after receiving calls from angry parents and asked that officers consider charging her under the criminal statute.

Howard County's efforts are not a new concept in the area. Some other counties in the Baltimore metropolitan region have been filing criminal charges against parents or adults who supply alcohol to minors for years.

David Daggett, chief of the District Court for the Carroll County state's attorney's office, says he has seen about four cases in the past three years. Two were cases against parents and two were against adults who had purchased alcohol for underage drinkers.

Daggett said parents who feel that their children are safer drinking at home miss an important point.

"The thing is maybe you're looking after your own kids, but you're putting the other kids in danger" when they drive home, Daggett said.

Chrisman's case has sparked controversy in Columbia and other affluent Howard County suburbs, where teen-agers often have the money to buy alcohol -- and cars.

Some parents say that teen-agers are going to drink regardless of what parents do, so it is better they drink in their homes rather than in an unsupervised situation, perhaps at a motel or in a field.

Others say that condoning underage drinking is tantamount to teaching a child that breaking the law is acceptable.

"The law says you don't drink until you're 21," said Wanda Hurt, president of Oakland Mills PTA. "That, to me, is the end of it."

Of parents who allow parties, she said: "I just wonder where their brains are."

But Laurie Laven, who held a party where teens brought alcohol to her home in west Columbia's Hickory Ridge Village two years ago, said that parents, not the government, have the ultimate responsibility for their children.

The hard-nosed enforcement does not teach children how to be smart about alcohol, said Laven, who received a civil citation for her daughter's party.

"They are teaching nothing about alcohol in moderation. I object to them telling the kids it's all or nothing and not [telling them] to be prudent," she said.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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