State Supreme Court clarifies alcohol law, allows parents to serve their children

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Saturday June 22, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- The state Supreme Judicial Court says parents cannot be held criminally liable for giving alcohol to their children at home, a ruling that clarifies what has been a confusing legal issue.

In a case detailed in a March article in The Eagle on confusing aspects of the law, the SJC this month overturned the conviction of a man accused of supplying alcohol to his teenage daughter at home. The man, John Parent, was found guilty of the charge in Middlesex Superior Court in 2010 and had appealed the jury’s verdict.

"Everything we asked to have overturned was overturned," said Parent’s attorney, Michael Tumposky, of Hedges & Tumposky of Boston.

The SJC reversed Parent’s conviction on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for supplying alcohol. Instead, the SJC entered a not guilty verdict.

A guilty verdict for supplying alcohol to his daughter’s teenage friend was not challenged, a finding that the SJC upheld, however.

Tumposky had said in March that the SJC took the case from the appeals court, which he said indicated it would issue a ruling aiming to clarify Chapter 138, Section 34, the state law dealing with parents’ liability for giving alcohol to their own children.

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Tumposky and others contacted by The Eagle had called Section 34 confusing. The SJC, in its ruling, came to the same conclusion.

The SJC ruled in part that "it was the intent of the Legislature to allow parents to choose to supply alcohol to their own child," Tumposky said.

Thomas Campoli, of Campoli & Monteleone of Pittsfield, who also serves on the city Licensing Board, had likewise termed the law confusing on those points.

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"There is no question this clarified Section 34," Campoli said of the ruling. "We now know that it is not a crime for a parent to provide an underage child with alcohol at home. ... It is interesting that the court also said that the language is confusing."

Section 34, which has been amended at least twice since the 1960s, also seemed to leave open the possibility parents could order alcoholic drinks for their children in a winery, brewery or brew pub. The law appears to clearly prohibit that same action in a bar or restaurant, each of which are referred to under a different clause of Section 34.

The attorneys interviewed said the SJC’s ruling possibly removes criminal liability from parents in a brew pub or winery, but it remains in doubt whether the establishment holding the liquor license could be charged for supplying a parent with alcohol that obviously would then be given to a child.

"I would advise any establishment against that," Campoli said.

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In fact, in March Gary Happ, owner of the Barrington Brewery and Restaurant in Great Barrington, said liquor license holders would not want to jeopardize their license even if the law seems vague on the subject.

In its lengthy ruling, the court stated in part: "We also conclude that the defendant’s conviction resting on his delivery of alcohol to his daughter must be reversed and a judgment of acquittal entered, because the Legislature did not intend [Section 34] to prohibit the delivery of alcohol by a parent to his minor children. We affirm [uphold] the conviction of furnishing, procuring, and delivering alcohol to the [daughter’s friend]."

The Superior Court jury had appeared confused by the concepts "delivering," "procuring" and "furnishing" and their context in Section 34, and jurors twice asked the trial judge for clarifications before finding Parent guilty.

The SJC wrote: "On appeal, the defendant challenges only his conviction of contributing to the delinquency of a child by delivering alcohol to his own daughter, arguing that the statutory exclusion for furnishing or procuring alcohol to one’s own child also applies to the delivery of alcohol to one’s own child. We agree.

"We do not interpret the admittedly confusing language of [Section] 34 to permit a parent to furnish or procure, but not deliver, alcohol to his own child in his own home."

The justices further stated: "Therefore, we conclude that a parent does not violate [Section] 34 by giving his own child alcohol in his own home, regardless whether that act is characterized as furnishing or delivering. Any contrary interpretation would make the exemption meaningless, because parents would never be able lawfully to "furnish" alcohol to their child within their home without being criminally liable for "delivering" alcohol to that same child.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien


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