CLEARLAKE – After a lengthy public comment period, the City Council went forward with final approval of an ordinance to control underage drinking in private residences.
The ordinance was up for its second reading Thursday night, after having been approved on its first reading at the council's July 12 meeting.
Police Chief Allan McClain said the ordinance allows police to address "an issue we couldn't touch before."
If police are called to a home and have probable cause to believe that underage drinking is taking place and the legal guardians of the minors drinking aren't present, the person throwing the party can be cited.
During public comment on the item, city resident Aqeela El-Amin Bakheit said she had researched underage drinking laws and felt there were some laws already in place that could be used to make the ordinance more specific. She passed that information on to the council and McClain, including teenage party prevention and dispersal codes from the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The proposed ordinance "doesn't go far enough," she suggested, and the city could get some assistance from Alcoholic Beverage Control to strengthen it.
City Administrator Dale Neiman said the city will consider the information and can bring the ordinance back to add in more specifics.
But a number of city residents who spoke to the issue felt the ordinance goes too far, that it will open the city to lawsuits and be abused by police officers, besides the fact that it could be challenged on constitutional grounds.
Regarding legal concerns, Neiman said City Attorney Tom Gibson had reviewed the ordinance before it went to the council.
There also was concern that the ordinance didn't explain the probable cause that would give officers the ability to investigate underage drinking at private residences.
McClain said the courts struggle with defining probable cause because of the numbers of variables.
Mayor Judy Thein said similar ordinances have been passed in the cities of Healdsburg, Petaluma and Los Gatos, and by Sonoma and Orange counties.
Speaking as a member of the public, Supervisor Jeff Smith said he supported giving police officers "another tool for their tool box."
"If this ordinance saves only one life, it's done its job," he said.
However, he questioned who acted as the legal guardian for young people ages 18 to 21, who are technically adults. Would parents then be held responsible if their children in that age group were found drinking?
McClain said it wasn't an attempt to go back on parents, but he explained the law sees people as minors until age 21. If people in that age group are drinking, they can be cited, he said, as can the person throwing the party where they're drinking if their parents aren't present.
If a similar ordinance comes to the county, Smith said he wants to have County Counsel Anita Grant look over that guardianship issue, which he said jumped out as a "gray area."
"That's the only part I'm concerned about in the ordinance," said Smith.
During the council discussion, Councilmember Joyce Overton said it was her understanding that parents can be held responsible for their children until age 25 when it comes to the education system.
She was concerned, however, about having a written protocol for officers going into homes.
He said existing laws and court decisions define what police can and can't do. Officers are prevented from simply going up and knocking on doors to look for illegal activity.
A police officer would have to be dispatched to the home on a call for a legitimate reason; then, if they saw juveniles with alcohol, they could begin investigating, McClain said.
Councilman Chuck Leonard said every ordinance is potentially open to abuse, and that it's impossible to lay out all the steps that might lead to an enforcement action. It's meant to be a tool to stop underage drinking, he said.
The council voted 5-0 to accept the ordinance on its second reason. It goes into effect in 30 days.
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