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Who Knows Best, Father or the Judge?

Who Knows Best, Father or the Judge?

Originally Published November 4, 2014

Connar Koch, resident of Monroe, Wisconsin, held a garage party at his parents’ residence. Due to a noise disturbance, police were called. Upon arrival police encountered Connar, who is under the legal drinking age.  He had clearly consumed alcohol, and alcohol was in plain view of the officers. As a result Connar was cited.

Connar fought the city’s decision to issue a citation for underage drinking, basing his innocence on the fact he was “accompanied” by a parent. The Circuit Court for Green County agreed.

The Wisconsin state law in question, Wisconsin Statute. § 125.07(4)(b), allows underage individuals to be in possession of alcohol so long as they are accompanied by a parent, guardian or spouse of legal drinking age.

According to the officers on the scene, Connar’s father was home, but apparently in a different part of the house, sleeping.

On appeal, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals for the Fourth District found that under a different provision of the same Wisconsin statute: Wisconsin Statute. § 125.07(1)(a), the term “accompany” means individualized supervision and control of the underage drinking minor. Merely being in the same vicinity does not suffice for fulfilling the mission of accompaniment under the statute.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions to find Koch guilty of underage drinking under the City of Monroe ordinance.

The language of the Wisconsin statute cited above is accurately applied in this case. But that does not mean justice was served. Judges are asked to interpret laws not just for meaning, but also intent. It seems this ruling overlooks the intention of the legislature – which is to allow families to enjoy festivities together without fear of prosecution.

This remand serves to put on trial private parenting decisions. Koch’s father was aware of the party, authorized the party, and had sufficient trust and comfort with his son’s ability to handle alcohol consumption that he elected not to exercise the court mandate to directly monitor and “control” his son’s consumption.

While the law seeks to curb underage drinking and its dangers by not simply allowing youths to consume alcohol in their parents’ presence, the legislation needs to find a balance between acting in the best interest of the public and violating the parents’ right to control their child in a manner they see fit. This ruling has the potential to infringe on ordinary familial relations and interactions. Imagine the parents of cousins born a week apart plan a birthday party for the elder cousin turning 21 years of age. Have they broken the law? Will the 20 year 358 day old cousin face charges of underage drinking despite his parents’ knowledge, permission, and proximity?

The enforceability of such a ruling could lead to a quagmire of questions as to when a minor is appropriately “accompanied”.

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