Legal Risks of Graduation Parties

The City of Fort Collins has officially created a "social host" ordinance to combat underage drinking and the law went into effect in the last few weeks.  Why is this important you ask?  Because it is CSU's Graduation weekend this weekend, along with countless other high school graduations throughout Northeastern Colorado.  Coincidentally, tomorrow is also Nicol Law Offices, LLC GRAND OPENING (at which there will be pizza and beer) over in Campus West Shops at Shields and Elizabeth Streets.  I will be carding people!

How can you protect yourself?  As in everything, you need to educate yourself.  Outlined below are some of the common pitfalls and problems with hosting parties for larger groups of people. 


The City of Fort Collins' proposed social host ordinance would provide a new offense for people hosting parties where underage people smoke marijuana and drink alcohol.  The term "host" means someone who has legal control of and access to the private property where the party is being held and who is on-site at the time of the gathering.  Hosts can be underage, but certainly property owners should be worried, especially if they stay at home during a teenage gathering.  The penalties for violating the ordinance are only civil infractions--for now--but even civil violations can be expensive (up to $2,750).  Allegedly, this ordinance is meant to be more of a deterrent to underage consumption than anything else, and even District Councilmen know it, stating, "It is a problem, and even if (the ordinance) doesn’t solve that much of it, it’s a tool that increases the fear factor and responsibility factor of those that want to hold these gatherings."  Basically, the ordinance itself doesnt

Fort Collins already has other options for enforcing various nuisance ordinances, such as noise violations, and for criminalizing underage consumption, such as the state's Minor In Possession Ordinances. Fort Collins Police in 2014 issued 240 citations for underage possession and/or drinking and four for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (which is actually a felony in the State of Colorado).  Nevertheless, proponents of the ordinance says it was designed to fill a gap left by existing ordinances, including discouraging early experimentation with alcohol and drugs by children, and combating sexual assault (THAT seems like a bit of a stretch to me, though).  For a great discussion of the analysis of the City's ordinance prior to its passage, see this article here: http://www.collegian.com/2016/04/city-council-takes-stand-on-underage-drinking-passes-social-host-ordinance/159903/.   In fact, the Coloradoan and Collegian have covered this ordinance and much of my data comes from these two news sources.

Basically, Police will have to right to ticket hosts even if the party is not deemed a nuisance/noisy and registering your party will be no defense providing no immunity unlike for noise violations. All officers need is a report that people are drinking alcohol or consuming marijuana underage to investigate and potentially cite violators.  Keep in mind, they can still write each and every underage person for MIP, as well as investigating other charges: possession of drug paraphernalia, much?

According to one online news source, in 2013, "56 percent of teens reported their last use of alcohol occurred in someone else’s home, according to Students Against Destructive Decisions" and parents were to blame, enabling their own teens and their friends in their own home.  What many parents don't realize, is that an MIP for an underage person can result in the loss of financial aid for your child for a very long time.  Meaning... No federal funding for that desperately expensive higher education. Worse yet, there is the possibility of serving someone too much, letting them drive, and having that guest kill someone in a DUI/Vehicular Homicide.  These penalties are MUCH worse if you are a business serving intoxicated person(s), granted (for a complete discussion of the dram shop laws, see Nolo.com's article here).  Adults, themselves, can also expose themselves to criminal liability.  Did I mention that Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor is a FELONY?  

As anyone knows, a criminal record will stay with you for LIFE.  But a felony record can impact your voting rights, your ability to own a weapon, and any number of other "collateral consequences." So, how can you host a safe, secure party for graduates--whether they be high school or college? Here are some valuable tips from Lawyers.com:

Don’t Serve Alcoholic Beverages to Minors and/or Inebriated Guests

  • An adult serving alcoholic beverages to a minor is subject to the possibility of criminal prosecution for aiding and abetting the delinquency of a minor. They are also subject to civil claims for damages for negligence - claims that can be pursued by both the minor and the minor’s parents.
  • If the host serves alcoholic beverages to guests of legal drinking age that are clearly inebriated and that intoxicated guest injures a third party, either on or off the host’s premises, the host is liable for injuries under the legal theory of negligence and breach of duty of due care.
  • It’s highly recommended that the host of the graduation party have a strict policy against underage drinking – the graduation party should be well chaperoned to enforce this “no drinking by minors” policy.

Know the Social Host Liability Laws in your State

  • Most states have “social host liability” laws that hold the host of a social function (like graduation parties) liable for damages caused to others after serving alcohol to minors and/or inebriated guests on his/her property.
  • For example: If there is an open bar at the graduation party and one of the guests becomes drunk and leaves the premises in his/her vehicle and injures someone – that injured person can sue both the driver AND the host of the party for negligence and/or potentially recklessness with the resulting exposure to the host of substantial monetary damages as well as the possibility of punitive damages if the host served the guest in an inebriated state.

Protect Guests from Hazardous Conditions on your Property

  • The host of the graduation party may also be liable for injuries that occur during the party as a result of negligent maintenance of the home (e.g. large cracks in the deck, unsafe steps, electrical problems etc.).
  • For example: If there are exposed wires on the floor and a guest trips on the wire while dancing and injuries himself/herself, the host is liable for the injury and may face a potential civil lawsuit because they failed to warn the guest of the danger and/or failed to take reasonable precautions to avoid the injury.
  • These precautions include conducting a thorough inspection of the graduation party premises to repair any defects or clear any obstacles which may increase the risk of an accident/injury to guests. If something cannot be prepared in time for the party, clearly label the area as a “danger zone” to avoid any claims for negligence.
  • In addition, party hosts should make sure that he/she has adequate homeowners’ insurance to cover any injury sustained by a guest while on his/her property. Make sure to read insurance policies to ensure that the coverage is not only current, but has adequate policy limits to meet any potential claims that may arise if a guest is injured while on the host’s property.
When hosting a party, it's important to keep a close eye on what is going on.  Failure to do so can land you in a lot of trouble.  Keep in mind, even if the police only charge a somewhat small offense, the District Attorney can add charges up to and including the date of trial.  If you or your children are charged with any of these offenses, you should speak to an attorney immediately.