Selectmen are studying underage drinking ordinances passed by 38 other towns - most in the past four years - to come up with one for Bethel. Newtown, Ridgefield, Redding and Brookfield already have such laws. "They closed the gap in the state law," said First Selectman Alice Hutchinson, "and we're looking to do the same." That gap in the law, said the project director of the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, is a loophole that allows police officers in Connecticut to arrest underage drinkers "on any street, highway or place open to the public," but not on private property. "Sixty percent of kids who drink do so at house parties," said Gary Najarian. Underage drinking ordinances also give police more clout in charging adults who provide alcohol to those younger than 21 - something that is already a felony under state law whether the alcohol is provided in public or on private property. Without the ordinance, though, adults can sometimes avoid arrest by claiming that the alcohol was provided by the underage drinker and not by them. With the ordinance, Najarian said, the adult host also is held responsible and can be fined. Under several of the ordinances passed in the Danbury area, that fine is $90. Bethel Police Chief Jeffrey Finch supports the selectmen's efforts for an underage drinking ordinance but said his officers already use the existing state law to charge adults who are providing liquor to those under 21. "When cops go to a party, the first thing they look for is whether there is an adult there," Finch said. Underage drinking ordinances, Najarian said, are very similar among the 38 towns that have them and are aimed at "large, out of control parties," not private family celebrations. The ordinances say that on private property a person under 21 can drink alcohol if his or her parent or guardian is present. Several Bethel teenagers said underage drinking is a problem in town but had mixed reactions about an ordinance to control it. "As long as it is supervised responsibly by an adult then it's OK," said Charlie McGarvie, 16, "but you shouldn't drive." Gina Sestito, 17, had a similar view. If there's drinking, she said, "a parent should be there, take the car keys, and know what everyone is drinking. No matter what they drink, even if it's half a beer, they shouldn't get behind the wheel." Sestito, who is a senior at Bethel High School, said "many of the kids in my grade drink and drive. It's a risk that is unbelievably ridiculous." Joe Magri, 18, said the town should give the ordinance a chance. "It's not going to hurt to try," he said. "Drinking and driving is a big problem and nothing else is going to lower underage drinking." In Ridgefield, where an underage drinking ordinance has been in effect since the spring of 2002, Police Capt. Stephen Brown said "it's working well." Ridgefield police have "utilized it several times and the ordinance gives officers an additional tool to cite underage drinkers."

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