HARTFORD - Last year, teens in New Milford and Glastonbury died after underage drinking incidents at house parties. In both cases police had no power to stop the teens because they were drinking on private property.

Bella Catizone , 17, of Glastonbury, knew two 17-year-old students at her school who were drinking at a party, then went on to drive. They were killed, as was a 33-year-old adult.

"This is a huge problem not just for schools, but for whole communities," Catizone said. She was among several teens who testified to the Judiciary Committee in favor of legislation that prohibits underage drinking on private property. "I hope this is passed. It could be one more step in getting to the whole problem."

Current Connecticut law does not make it illegal for minors to drink on private property. It is prohibited on streets, highways and in public places.


If passed, this bill would allow police to enter private property if they had good reason to believe underage drinking was going on. When caught, the underage drinker faces a $500 fine or a year in jail. The bill also would prohibit a facility from having a non-alcoholic juice bar during the same hours it serves alcohol.

The bill is similar in form and function to the local underage drinking laws enacted in recent years in Ridgefield and Newtown.

While some believe the proposed state law would help prevent cases of underage drinking, others fear it may threaten civil liberties by giving police more authority to come into a home.

Catherine LeVasseur
of Killingsworth, a student at Central Connecticut State University and the youth chair for the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, ask lawmakers to imagine they were police officers who could see minors consuming alcohol through the windows of a home, but were powerless.

"The teenager who lives in the house says her parents aren't home but she's in control of the situation and doesn't need your help," LeVasseur said. "You feel that the situation isn't under control and the 16-year-old girl was influenced by peer pressure. As you turn to walk away, you see the teens toasting you and taunting you because there is nothing you could do. This could never happen, right? Wrong, this happened a week and a half ago in Hamden."

According to the coalition, 61 percent of Connecticut teens who drink said they drank at house parties, while Connecticut's youth drinking rate is 26-28 percent higher than the nation's drinking rate.

Sen. David Cappiello , a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill is well-intentioned, but said if teens drink at a private home, at least they're under parental supervision and won't be driving.

"Stamping out underage drinking is a noble goal but you've got to be realistic," said Cappiello, a Danbury Republican. "If I could, I'd wave my wand and wipe out underage drinking. But I think this bill would encourage more underage drinking without supervision and drinking and driving."

Moreover, Cappiello said he has civil liberties concerns about the proposal.

"It's a major issue with privacy rights," Cappiello said. "It could allow police to enter your property without probable cause. It's a bill with noble intent. But what's next? This can be the beginning of a slippery slope."

Rep. Sonya Googins , R-Glastonbury, a key supporter of the legislation, said since her town adopted the law, there haven't been cases of abuse.

"It's a really big deterrent," Googins said. "Parents should rightfully be able to expect their child won't be involved in underage drinking. If police think a crime is being committed, I don't think we should put too much in the way of allowing them to intervene."

The proposal passed through the Judiciary Committee last year, but died before coming to a vote when the clock ran out in the regular session.

Rep. Michael Lawlor , D-East Haven, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he expects the bill to be passed this year, and believes most controversial aspects have been ironed out.

In Connecticut, 31 municipalities, including Ridgefield and Newtown, have a similar ordinance. Meanwhile, local governments elsewhere are considering such ordinances.

"Underage drinking is a state problem, not just townwide, so why is it not being passed on the state level instead of piecemeal, town by town?" asked Maureen Ryder , 16, of Durham, who helped get a local law passed in her hometown. "Since Durham passed the ordinance last fall, the chatter in the hallway has changed. Kids are smart. They know they can drink on private property with immunity in towns without the ordinance."

Ridgefield Police Captain Stephen Brown said the law could be helpful to other towns, and said it doesn't give police too much power. Underage drinkers on private property in Ridgefield are fined $77.

"The ordinance prohibits underage drinking on private property," Brown said. "It doesn't circumvent any standard search and seizure laws. If officers respond to an incident, and during the investigation find minors with alcohol, they will penalize them."

The Ridgefield law was passed in 2002. In 2001, the year before the law was passed, police charged 13 minors with possession of alcohol. In 2003, police charged 16 minors with possession. But Brown said there is no way to know if the law affected those totals.

Contact Fred Lucas

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