Open house party hosting can be dangerous to both finances and freedom. Most states permit parents to serve their own children alcohol. However, it is illegal to do so with the offspring of others. Even when they give permission.
A prosecutor in Florida ran for office on a promise to crack down on open house parties at which underage adults drink alcohol. Following his election, he charged a woman with manslaughter. A young adult who became intoxicated at a gathering at her house later died along with his passenger in his speeding car.
Florida Alcohol Law
Florida courts have found that serving alcohol to underage persons who are subsequently involved in crashes is simple negligence. It’s not the culpable negligence required for manslaughter.
According to state law, it is criminal negligence for an intoxicated person to drive a vehicle. If any death results, it is the drunk driver who is criminally negligent and guilty of manslaughter.
According to Florida case law, it’s illegal to prevent an intoxicated person from leaving one’s property. To do so is an illegal arrest.
Prosecutor Tries to Change Law Himself
However, the prosecutor attempted to create duties and obligations that are not recognized by statute, case law, or common law. He tried to create criminal negligence, instead of simple negligence, on the part of the social host.
The prosecutor did this in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court of Florida found that not even statutes passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that criminalize simple negligence are constitutional.
Although not even the legislature can criminalize simple negligence, the prosecutor attempted to do so himself by using a jury. This led to the observation that the prosecutor was attempting to “Nifong”1 the defendant. The Florida Times-Union called it an unprecedented case. Similarly, the St. Augustine Record called the case unique.
Among other arguments, the prosecutor asserted that intoxication causes speeding. He also insisted that the defendant should have known that an intoxicated young driver would probably or likely have a fatal crash.
The defense’s expert witness testified that intoxication does not cause speeding. In reality, some drunk drivers choose to speed whereas others choose to drive slowly in order to avoid apprehension.
He alsotestified that it is not at all probable or likely that an underage drunken driver would be involved in a fatal crash. The expert used government statistics to show that the chances are a few 10,000ths or less.
The jury took only about two hours to acquit the defendant of manslaughter charges. Defense attorney Gerald Bettman had long argued that the law did not support the prosecution’s charges of manslaughter. “They knew from the beginning, if they’d done their homework, that the law did not support these charges,” said Bettman, adding “It wasn’t fair.”
Following the verdict, Senior St. Johns Circuit Judge Richard O. Watson said that the proper place to change law is through the legislature. The prosecution had tried to change the law through the court.
Resources: Open House Party Hosting
1. Mike Nifong’s politically-motivated prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players became persecution after it became apparent that they were innocent. Nifong was disbarred after a judicial panel found that he manipulated the investigation for personal political advantage and committed “a clear case of intentional prosecutorial misconduct” that involved “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.”
State of Florida v. Diane Katz Santarelli