Discuss as:

Charges dropped against Calif. parents who threw teen party

Updated May 18, 2012

Parents of teenagers in Menlo Park are breathing a sigh of relief this weekend--and probably feel a whole lot better if they're hosting a high school graduation party in the coming weeks.

San Mateo County Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato announced yesterday that a six-month investigation of parents Bill and Cynthia Burnett has come to end, and all charges are being dropped against the Stanford University faculty member and his wife, according to a story in The Almanac. The DA’s office concluded that there was insufficient evidence that either committed a crime when the couple hosted their son's end-of-season football party last fall.

In December, the Burnetts made national headlines for being arrested for underage drinking in their home. The Burnetts were adamant  they were clear with guests that no drinking was allowed on their property, and patrolled the party the whole time. But several teens slipped booze into the house anyway. The police received an anonymous call that teens might be drinking, broke up the party, and arrested the Burnetts. (The Burnetts appeared on TODAY, claiming their innocence.)

This week, TODAY Moms quoted the Burnetts in this story about “social host liability” laws which can, in some states, hold parents responsible for underage drinking-- even when they aren't aware that kids are doing it in the first place.

While Assistant District Attoney Serrato didn't address the policy behind California's social host laws, he did conclude that the Burnetts had not furnished alcohol to the teens, or contributed to the delinquency of minors. Under California law, the Burnetts were not criminally negligent, The Almanac reported. And at the end of the day, none of the kids had committed any crimes or injured anyone else. The Burnetts did not return calls from TODAY Moms for a comment.

While the ruling was a victory for the Burnetts, parents should still proceed with caution this summer. The law varies from state-to-sate, and you just never know what you're getting into when you decide to host a party.


Getty Images stock

Party? Hardly. If a teen drinks at your house -- even if you're totally clueless -- you could end up in the slammer.

For teens, end-of-the-school-year festivities such as prom, graduation, and the start of summer vacation usually translate into one thing: Party! But for parents, especially those who host or chaperone, the parties translate into a whole other thing: Beware!

When it comes to kids and alcohol, a parent can take every safety precaution they can possibly think of it and still be held responsible  for almost anything that happens as a result of underage drinking on their property. As a lawyer and mom myself, I think all parents should proceed with extreme caution if you’re going to have a large group of teenagers in your home.

Just ask Stanford professor Bill Burnett. He made headlines last winter when Menlo Park, Calif. police arrested him after hosting a party for his son’s team to celebrate the end of their football season.  Burnett told TODAY he and his wife did their best to chaperone, from baking cookies to patrolling the party periodically for booze. But teens will be teens, and a few of them somehow managed to sneak some drinks by him anyway.

Five months later, the District Attorney hasn’t brought charges against the Burnetts (the office has up to a year to follow through). Either way, Burnett says, the way that laws against teen drinking are being enforced is making the town less safe for teenagers. “They’re sending a perverse message,” he explains, “that parents shouldn’t supervise parties.”

In fact, you don’t necessarily have to be anywhere near the party or even know that kids are at your house to be arrested for a crime. States have different “social host laws” and under some of them, a parent can face criminal charges and hefty fines if an accident occurs as a result of any underage drinking at your home. Even if, say, you’re away on vacation and have no idea that anything is going down in the first place.

David White, a Massachusetts lawyer and an expert in social host liability, warns parents that law enforcement is going to get especially aggressive from now until Labor Day.  

“The police tend to patrol more during the next few months and put up more road blocks around prom time through the summer holidays,” he cautions. “And they will try to trace the underage drinking back to the source.”  

Related link: Are parents responsible for teen drinking, even if they don't know about it?

So what’s a parent to do -- never host a celebration for your teen? Well, you can, but the more your kids know about the dangers of underage drinking, the safer everyone will be.

Marcie Seidel is Executive Director of Drug Free Action Alliance, an organization that develops alcohol awareness programs like their “Parents Who Host, Lose The Most” campaign, which educates parents about the dangers of social host liability.

She believes the best way to protect yourself is to teach kids that drinking is an adult behavior long before they know what a keg looks like. Seidel tells parents to resist bibs and little kiddie clothes with any kind of cute, drinking related slogan, and to draw a hard line on any alcohol related activity from the get-go. “Don’t include a young child in your drinking routine, such as sending them to the fridge for your beer,” she says.

Obviously, parents of teens who have already been exposed to drinking are in a different predicament. Here are some Mom-to-Mom safety suggestions if you find yourself hosting this party season.

For starters, get as many other parents to help chaperone as you can: The more eyes, the better!

Shift parties to the daytime, since there tends to be less drinking than at night.

Avoid joint graduation parties with older siblings who may already be able to drink legally, and remember— if you catch one kid with alcohol, assume everyone at the party has been drinking too, and don’t let anyone get in the car to drive home.

At the end of the day though, many of us are left scratching our heads. If law enforcement is cracking down on parents for hosting teenagers, aren’t we just pushing kids to party somewhere else, where an adult couldn’t easily help them if they needed it?

Bill Burnett certainly thinks so. “All of this is going backwards in terms of safety,” he says. “Parents and the police should be people our kids feel safe turning to for help when they’ve made a poor decision.”

Jacoba Urist is a lawyer and writer in Manhattan. Thankfully, this party season, she’s the mom of a toddler, not a teenager. She’s dealing with a different kind of “bottle problem” entirely.

Bill Burnett was arrested for unknowingly allowing alcohol at a house party for his son's football team.  He and his wife Cynthia talk with TODAY's Matt Lauer about the complicated issue of teen drinking.

More stories from TODAY Moms:

7 ways to stop drinking and driving, for real

Time's breast-feeding toddler spurs shock, talk

The list is out: Top baby names for 2011 are...