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Fining hosts of unruly parties works; ‘social host ordinance’ needed throughout Baltimore County | COMMENTARY

Imagine living in what you think is a quiet, residential neighborhood — and then suddenly your peace is interrupted by loud, late-night parties with excessive drinking that attract large crowds and lead to public drunkenness. In the morning, you may be greeted with vandalism or a young person passed out on the lawn.

You can try talking to your neighbor, or, more likely, you can call the police.

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Then what happens? The police can charge the hosts with a crime if, for example, they allowed a minor to drink. But police are often reluctant to arrest someone for hosting a loud party and are left with warning them to keep it down, bringing momentary calm, followed by a rejuvenated loud and unruly party shortly thereafter. It can be a nightmare that ruins your quality of life and eats away at neighborhood property values.

Many families residing in neighborhoods throughout Towson were experiencing this until the Baltimore County Council passed a “social host” ordinance in 2016 as a pilot program to crack down on unruly college parties in Towson and around the UMBC campus.

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The results were overwhelmingly positive, with complaints dropping from 51 in the year before the pilot went into effect to half that within a year and to only 12 infractions two years later. In the footsteps of progress, the council passed with bipartisan, unanimous support a four-year extension through 2022 that also expanded the coverage to more, but not all, communities in Baltimore County.

The social host ordinance is one of the most important initiatives the County Council has passed in the last five years; yet this effective tool in reducing loud unruly parties and alcohol-related harms is only available to a limited part of the county. That’s why we are introducing and supporting legislation in the Baltimore County Council this month to make this law permanent and in effect throughout Baltimore County.

Under the social host ordinance, police can issue a civil fine of $500 to a host of a party the first time they violate the law, with increasing fines for subsequent offenses at the same location. Police also warn the landlord when a tenant is cited and can cite the landlord for subsequent violations. A judge can also sentence violators to perform community service — a powerful tool, without giving offenders a criminal record.

Criminal penalties may be appropriate in some cases, but we found that most of the time allowing the police to issue a civil citation — like a speeding ticket — to the host of the loud, unruly party is more effective at deterring these gatherings than a criminal penalty.

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Four other local jurisdictions — Baltimore City, College Park, the City of Frostburg and the town of Princess Anne — have recently adopted a version of this civil penalty and used it successfully with similar results. Those jurisdictions have seen fewer calls for service to police related to large house parties, and reductions in excessive drinking at house parties among college students, according to an analysis by the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a statewide effort housed at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland College Park. Two jurisdictions saw a 60% drop in complaint calls for excessive noise.

While social host ordinances are effective at reducing loud disturbances in our communities, this is not only about quality of life for working adults. Social host laws improve public health and safety for the entire community. Research shows that social host laws are associated with less frequent underage drinking in private settings and with significant decreases in DUI rates.

We believe that the social host ordinance we now have in place sends a powerful message that hosting disruptive parties, many of which involve underage or excessive drinking, is not acceptable in our communities.

We are very pleased with the council’s bipartisan, unanimous support of the ordinance since it first enacted the pilot project in a small group of neighborhoods five years ago. This reflects a recognition that this is not just a public safety issue, but a property rights issue, as unruly disturbances erode neighborhoods over time. We believe that all communities in Baltimore County deserve the right to peace and quiet and the added layer of safety this ordinance brings. We urge the County Council to support the expansion of the social host pilot project and give the entire county permanent access to this valuable tool to protect our public safety and peaceful enjoyment of our homes.

David Marks (council5@baltimorecountymd.gov) represents District 5, which includes Towson, on the Baltimore County Council. Scott Shellenberger (sshellenberger@baltimorecountymd.gov) is state’s attorney for Baltimore County.

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