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House panel approves bill to enable jail for hosts of underage-drinking parties

ANNAPOLIS – The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would allow judges to imprison adults who knowingly and willfully host underage drinking parties.

The measure, however, would retain as just a fineable offense the mere furnishing of alcohol to a person under age 21.

The committee-approved bill stands in stark contrast to legislation the Senate passed on March 3, which would also make the furnishing of alcohol to someone underage a jailable offense.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, successfully moved for the mere-furnishing exclusion, saying the Senate-approved measure would provide too strong a punishment for adults who do not intend for underage consumption of their alcohol. Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, joined Parrott, saying the Senate-passed bill could result in college seniors being jailed for drinking beers with underclassmen.

“We have to be very realistic about how today’s world looks,” Moon told his committee colleagues.

The legislation’s goal is to punish “irresponsible parents,” not college students, he added.

But Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, in a failed bid to defeat Parrott’s amendment, said the legislation’s goal of preventing underage drinking would be weakened by removing the furnishing of alcohol as a potentially jailable offense.

“We need to crack down on the whole thing,” said Dumais, D-Montgomery and the committee’s vice chair.

With the amendment, the committee is telling adults “you can furnish it and then pretend you didn’t know they were drinking it,” Dumais added in vain.

The committee, after passing Parrott’s amendment, then approved the bill and sent it to the House floor, where it is expected to be considered by the end of next week.

The legislation, House Bill 409, was prompted by the deaths last June of Alex Murk and Calvin Li, both 18, in a single-car crash on a residential road after attending an underage drinking party. The recent graduates of Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School were passengers in a car driven by Samuel Ellis, 19, whom police said was legally drunk while approaching speeds of 100 miles per hour on Dufief Mill Road in North Potomac.

Ellis is facing charges of negligent homicide by automobile while under the influence, negligent manslaughter by automobile and causing life-threatening injury by vehicle while under the influence; Kenneth Saltzman, whom police said hosted more than 20 underage drinkers at his North Potomac home, pleaded guilty to two counts of furnishing alcohol to individuals under age 21 and paid a $5,000 fine.

Saltzman had broken a state law prohibiting adults from “knowingly and willfully” allowing someone under age 21 from possessing or consuming an alcoholic beverage at the adult’s residence. The statute, which currently carries no jail sentence, makes exceptions for members of the adult’s immediate family and for participants in a religious ceremony.

The measure — titled “Alex and Calvin’s Law” — would add a potential jail sentence of up to one year for a first offense and up to two years for each subsequent violation. HB 409 would also increase the maximum fines from $2,500 to $5,000 for a first offense and from $5,000 to $7,500 for each subsequent offense.

Del. David V. Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of HB 409. Sen. Brian J. Feldman, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 564.

While proposing stricter criminal sanctions, legislators have declined to address whether parents, or other adults, who host underage drinking parties could be held civilly liable for harm caused by or to their inebriated guests who get into a car. However, Maryland’s top court has recently heard two cases addressing whether the state’s common law provides for such civil liability.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decisions by Aug. 31. The two cases are Nancy Dankos (F/K/A Nancy Davis) v. Linda Stapf, No. 55 September Term 2015, and Manal Kiriakos v. Brandon Phillips, No. 20 September Term 2015.