At their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, the Fort Collins City Council adopted an ordinance that aims to put pressure on people hosting parties, with the goal of preventing underage drinking and marijuana use. It had been in the works since last year, and has faced opposition, especially among Colorado State University students.
The ordinance allows officers to give a civil violation to hosts of parties that are not causing a nuisance, such as noise or littering, but that involve use of alcohol or marijuana by minors. Prior to this new ordinance, police in this situation could cite each underage person at a party for minor in possession, but could not hold accountable an adult responsible for the premises.
The term ‘hosting’ a party under this ordinance refers to someone who has legal control of, and access to, the private place where a party is being held, and who is on-site at the time of the gathering. Tickets associated with this type of civil infraction can be up to $2,750.
The ordinance passed with six out of seven votes, with the only ‘no’ coming from Councilmember Ray Martinez of District 2.
How the police might discover a party that involves underage drinking, but that was not causing a nuisance like noise, littering or spilling of party-goers onto neighboring properties, was the topic of some debate.
“It does seem a little niche-y problem that you’re trying to correct with this,” said Councilmember Gino Campana of District 3. “I’m not getting the powerful impact of this.”
The ordinance was presented to Council by Delynn Coldiron, City of Fort Collins Neighborhood Services Manager and Lieutenant Jeremy Yonce of FCPD’s Neighborhood Enforcement Team. Members of Team Fort Collins, an advocacy group that recently rebranded themselves to TEAM Wellness and Prevention and that championed this ordinance in the past, also were present.
During discussion, Yonce said the law intends to fill in an enforcement gap left by the other Fort Collins ordinances and laws; these may include, but not be limited to, the laws against open containers, providing alcohol to minors and public nuisances. He said that despite all this legislation, underage drinking still occurs and the writers of this ordinance wish to combat that.
“If there’s other violations occurring, we might be able to enforce other violations against the resident or the host of the party … this gap it’s filling in is where we don’t have the other violations but yet there is underage drinking occurring,” Yonce said. “That is the gap that we’re talking about, we’re not talking about using this to somehow supplant our noise ordinance or something of that nature.”
Accorrding to Coldiron, the City of Fort Collins was not doing enough to discourage underage drinking.
“(I)t seemed like Fort Collins was giving this message that underage drinking should not occur in our city if you’re a nuisance to your neighbor,” Coldiron said. “Not that underage drinking should not occur, and that adults should not host parties that encourage either underage drinking and/or abuse of marijuana.”
The group emphasized that penalties associated with this law would only amount to a fine and a civil infraction, which would not appear on someone’s permanent record nor result in jail time. However, three violations of the law within a 12-month period could result in the infraction becoming a criminal case.
“We do think it gives us a way to help, another way to deter underage drinking and consumption of marijuana, we do think it enhances our enforcement options by providing a softer response option, a civil option, and it does help us facilitate some of those non-nuisance party situations where we feel there’s a gap right at the moment,” Coldiron said.
Exemptions to the law include if a parent is present and they give permission to their child to consume alcohol or marijuana, students who are under the supervision of an instructor, minors consuming alcohol or marijuana for religious reasons, and minors with a medical marijuana card.
Party registration would in this case give no immunity, as it applies only to violations of the noise ordinance.
In addition to their efforts addressing other party-related nuisances like noise and littering, Yonce said FCPD knew they wanted to take on the issue of underage drinking, but felt that prior to this ordinance, they didn’t have the tools to address it.
“Our goal here isn’t to just … say ‘hey, you need to leave,’ and not have an impact over time in reducing the underage consumption of alcohol and marijuana,” Yonce said.
The proposal included data on sister cities’ implementations of similar social host ordinances, though their other policies did not necessarily mirror those of Fort Collins. Martinez observed that there were no hard conclusions to be drawn from the data on other cities, and argued that their data either didn’t attest to any helpful aspects of this ordinance, or simply cited its effectiveness against noise complaints, for which Fort Collins already has a law.
Councilmember Gino Campana of District 3 subsequently agreed that majority of the sister cities cited in the proposal did not appear to have success with a similar program.
“If this … study of sister cities who, their combined program is what we would have if we had a social host ordinance, and the majority of them are indicating that they’re not having success with it, what makes us think that we are going to be successful? Are we doing something different than they’re doing?” asked Campana.
Martinez also raised a number of other questions about the law, including that to issue a civil violation does not require evidence beyond all reasonable doubt; it only needs to be based on an assessment of the evidence. Additionally, he cited the lack of a jury trial as part of the civil infraction appeal process as worrying.
Before the final vote, several council members expressed their support for the initiative based on their experiences as parents of teenagers.
“There is a gap, and as a father who … had teenage daughters, it’s a problem … and it is, both marijuana and alcohol now, we really need to give more tools to let the under-21 group of citizens know that this is not acceptable behavior for under 21,” said Councilmember Ross Cunniff of District 5. “(P)arents of that vulnerable age group, and they would like some more tools so that when they call the police, the police won’t just say, ‘Well is the party being a nuisance?’ and if they say no, then that’s the end of the conversation. So I support it.”
Councilmember Kristin Stephens of District 4 connected underage drinking to several other negative behaviors, reading aloud an excerpt written by Team Fort Collins in the proposal.
“’Not only is underage drinking illegal, alcohol is often a factor in rape, violence, fights, bullying and other forms of victimization and intimidation. It can be a factor in suicides, vandalism and other property destruction,'” Stephens read. “We’re not just talking about having a few beers, this sort of binge drinking and some of the stuff that happens with underage kids drinking is really dangerous and scary and it can really lead to some behaviors in our community that we don’t want … and children’s lives being ruined,” she continued.
Because of the danger gaining a criminal record while at college poses to potential job prospects, a point brought up repeatedly about the adoption of this ordinance was the City’s departure from criminal-only infractions for hosting underage drinkers.
“We’ve heard feedback from CSU students and their legal office for years of concerns about having a criminal record and this actually provides an option that doesn’t go on any criminal record at all. So that was one of the things we were trying to do to help address those concerns,” Yonce said.
Before the ordinance goes to its second reading, Darin Atteberry, Fort Collins City Manager, called for making a clearer statement on the ordinance’s desired outcome as well as more clearly defining the measures of its success.
“Fort Collins is a very different model … I think the bar is different here,” said Atteberry.
Mayor Pro Tem Gerry Horak agreed.
“So all these other communities aren’t where we are, they just collected their data and showed it to us, but it doesn’t fit for us,” said Horak, referencing Colorado’s unique marijuana laws. “And is there a problem? If anyone says that holding events for underage use of those two substances is not an issue in our community and it only occurs when there’s loud noises occurring or there’s people spilling all over the place, that’s why lots of folks in high school don’t get picked up.”
Correction: April 7, 2016
A previous version of this article misidentified a third presenter as Lindsay Ex, a Senior Environmental Planner with the City of Fort Collins. Quotes attributed to Ex have been corrected; the Collegian regrets the error.
Collegian Reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @julia_rentsch.