The teeth of justice just a got a little sharper in Santa Barbara County when it comes to serving booze to underage kids. In the works for three years, a social host ordinance—echoing similar rules in Santa Barbara City and throughout Ventura County—was approved by the Santa Barbara County Supervisors this week, effectively making homeowners or property renters legally responsible for anyone under the age of 21 drinking adult beverages at their house during a party. “Basically, if you are on the lease for an apartment or a house and a party is occurring at that residence and you are present, under this ordinance, you are now liable,” summed up Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
Specifically, as per the freshly adopted ordinance, a first offense gets the party “hosts” a $500 civil fine and a mandatory alcohol counseling class through the county to be completed within 90 days. A second offense bumps the fine up to $1,000, and a third time doubles that amount to $2,000. While it has long been illegal to provide alcoholic beverages to those not yet of legal drinking age, the only way to get in trouble for furnishing alcohol to minors was if law enforcement actually saw the deal go down. Now, if you are “knowingly” having a party (the official definition of a party is a gathering of five or more people) where underage people are drinking, then you—regardless of who furnished the alcohol or what was seen by authorities—are wide open to legal ramifications. Further, the hope is that the ordinance will work as a proactive deterrent of sorts to make parents, guardians, and older friends think twice before allowing underage drinking to happen in their homes. “The goal of this is not to write a whole bunch of citations,” Brown told the Supes, “but rather to have this be a preventative measure.”
The new ordinance was not without its detractors on Tuesday. Chief among them were University of California at Santa Barbara students and the many Gauchos who call Isla Vista home—a place where the overwhelming majority of minor-in-possession and furnishing-alcohol-to-minors tickets are written each year according to County Sheriff data. Many students felt unfairly targeted by the ordinance and, because of the often-complicated living situations that are the calling card of I.V. life, unfairly exposed to the bite of the new rules. Some, including members of UCSB’s Associated Students Government, cried foul about the process in which the ordinance was crafted, claiming not to have had their voice heard since the ordinance was sent back to the planning stages last May. With the über-crowded seaside hamlet a teeming menagerie of party friendly living situations, students expressed concern about what the ordinance would mean for houses where some roommates are of legal drinking age and others are not, or apartments where several people are on the lease but perhaps all are not home or even in the know when a party occurs. “In I.V., there are usually four to 10 people on a lease—would they all be held responsible?” asked Associated Students Government representative and I.V. resident Ashley Day.
For their part, the Supes, looking specifically to rein in the widespread—and potentially fatal—scourge of underage drinking throughout the county, opted to approve the ordinance despite apparent shortcomings with it. “This isn’t some utopian document that is going to do away with teenage drinking—that isn’t going to happen,” said 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno, “But we need to give our law enforcement the tools to deal with this kind of stuff … This is about the youth in Santa Barbara County and protecting them from some terrible things that can happen.” In the end, the board voted 4-1 in favor of the ordinance, with Doreen Farr—whose 3rd District includes I.V.—the lone dissenting vote.
As part of the ordinance, a public outreach component will now kick into high gear to educate people about the new rules. Once that is complete in November the rule will become effective.