Senate approves stiffer fines for giving liquor to minors

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Senate rejected a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to give alcoholic beverages to minors, with many lawmakers arguing that the proposal could make criminals of people at tailgates, fraternity parties or graduation celebrations.

The Senate voted instead to raise civil fines for furnishing alcohol to someone under the age of 21 after a contentious debate in the chamber, with some lawmakers citing tragic incidents of underage drinking and others bringing up seemingly innocent scenarios that could end in jail time. Senators narrowly approved the higher fines in a 23-to-22 vote as part of an amendment that also stripped criminal penalties from the bill.

"This is criminalizing something that takes place, like it or not, all over the state every single day," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted for the amendment.

The Senate watered down the bill intended to crack down on supplying booze to underage drinkers after the House of Delegates unanimously approved similar legislation last month. Under the House bill, giving alcohol to someone under 21 years old would be made a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail or a fine of up to $1,000.

If the Senate bill is given final approval later this week, the two chambers would have to work out their differences for any legislation to be sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his signature. Spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor is reviewing the proposals.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who crafted the amendment, said that current law already provides for criminal penalties for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which could include furnishing alcohol to children and teenagers under the age of 18. He said it's unclear whether that statute could be applied in situations involving people between the ages of 18 and 21.

Zirkin fought the bill on the Senate floor for several days, and some lawmakers said yesterday that they found his arguments persuasive. One of those arguments held that the criminal penalties, if approved, could be imposed in the case of an American soldier returning from Iraq and sharing a glass of celebratory wine with his underage girlfriend.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, also raised concerns about how broadly the law could be applied. "Think about some of these events and these tailgates at these college football games, and Ravens games and the Redskins," he said.

Under current law, it is a civil offense for someone to give alcohol for consumption to underage individuals, unless they are members of the same family and the drinking takes place in a private residence, or if they are participating in a religious ceremony. The Senate bill would raise the maximum fine for the first offense from $1,000 to $2,500, and the fine for subsequent offenses from $1,500 to $5,000.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Republican representing Baltimore and Carroll counties, argued that contributing to the delinquency of a minor is difficult for prosecutors to prove. He sponsored the bill and argued that the civil citations "are not working" and that judges need the option of incarceration.

"We don't have adequate deterrence," Haines said.

Some lawmakers said alcohol should be treated no differently than other mind-altering drugs; others said underage drinking is too often tolerated. Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties, recounted a story of a teenager throwing a party at a neighbor's home during which a young woman was raped and left to die in the nearby woods. She said the teenager's mother was upstairs during the party.

Many senators grappled with how to vote on the bill. Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said she had opposed criminal penalties during a committee vote but changed her mind when the bill came to the Senate floor. "We should know better," Gladden said. "We are adults."

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