Strict Liability For Parents

Alabama’s most affluent suburb, Mountain Brook (home of Natalee Holloway, whose apparent abduction and murder in Aruba was a Greta Van Susteren / Nancy Grace panic-TV staple), is considering adopting a new “open house party” ordinance. It would fine homeowners when two or more underage people drink alcohol in the house. On the third offense, the law provides that the homeowners would be guilty of a misdemeanor. Homeowners, by which we really mean parents, would be criminally liable even if they were unaware that kids were drinking in their homes. They are strictly liable – guilty even if they had no intent to break the law, had no knowledge it was being broken, and were not even negligent in allowing the infraction to occur.

In my juvenile justice class, I ask whether it is really possible for parents to control their kids’ behavior. Inevitably, most people say no. “You can’t control what kids will do.” I then ask about the efficacy of a statute holding parents financially liable for all damage caused by their children. Most students think this would provide only a limited incentive to control children. In the end, my students insist, kids are out of parents’ control. Then I push a step further: what if the parents are held criminally liable for whatever crimes the child commits. If a child commits a burglary, the parent is guilty. When little Eddie Jr. robs and kills an old lady walking down the street, Eddie Sr. spends the rest of his life in the pokey. At this point, students see that parents probably can significantly control a child’s conduct. Unfortunately, with such high stakes, they may resort to abusive behavior, such as beating their children or imprisoning them in their bedrooms.

There are really two different issues here. The first is effectiveness. Can a strict liability ordinance punishing parents really affect the conduct of a child? The answer, it seems to me, is yes – provided that the stakes are high enough. I’m not sure that Mountain Brook has raised the stakes very high and a statute that does so may generate unacceptably high collateral costs. The second question is moral. Should a parent be liable for the acts of the child even she worked hard to prevent them? This is tough for me. If a parent is not negligent – she does every single thing a reasonable person would do to keep her child in check – I think it’s hard to justify punishing her. What more can we ask of a parent? On the other hand, perhaps we want parents to go beyond mere reasonable behavior. The reasonable parent seeking to prevent open house parties will lock up the booze and perhaps install a nanny-cam to monitor the house. But maybe we want parents to go further; maybe we want parents to construct their entire lives around teaching children to behave in good ways. Perhaps a strict liability law is really trying to change overall parenting strategies. Mountain Brook wants parents to teach a different value set from early on: don’t disobey parents, follow house rules, don’t break the law.

I doubt the Mountain Brook ordinance will change behavior too much. Rational Brookies will understand that every home is entitled to two open house parties without serious consequence. And I suspect that the local judges will be loathe to burden a community leader with a criminal record, even if little Eddie got a bit wild while his folks were at the beach. But start holding parents strictly liable for the crimes of their kids, and I suspect you’d see a whole new construction of parenthood. And some interesting collateral effects. Parents would quickly give up custody of their “problem children” – burdening the state’s family protection office. On the other hand, some people might think twice about having children before they were able to properly supervise them.

Is strict liability for parents a good idea? I’m not sure that socially tolerable provisions will work, or that effective provisions are socially tolerable. But it’s certainly worth a conversation.

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4 Responses

  1. John says:

    To my mind, the larger concern is the enormous amount of discretion the ordinace would give to local officials. Note from the link that the ordinance technically would apply to parents who allow their two teenage minor children to drink wine at dinner with the family. (But not to parents who have only one child!) It also would apply to a teenager who has one or two friends over to drink beer and watch TV while parents are out. And, of course, it would apply to large parties that parents claim not to approve of, yet which their children appear to throw or attend with regularity. (Many of the parents probably went to similar parties as teenagers, and they probably only get mad when “something happens.”) In any event, three rather disparate sets of cases, all eligible to be treated the same way — when one might think they should be treated differently. I’d argue that only the third should be the concern of local lawmakers, particularly in light of the potential for abuses. But even so, the deterrence issue that you raise still remains. Isn’t part of the answer that the proposed ordinance is (hopefully) largely symbolic?

  2. John Armstrong says:

    Actually, this does more than strong-arm parents into controlling their children’s behavior. It strong-arms them into controlling their behavior a certain way.

    As my brother and I were growing up, as we got to the point that alcohol wasn’t repulsive[*] our parents allowed us wine with dinner, for instance. It was only done when it would be responsible for anyone else to have had that drink if they were of age. I can’t even count the number of misdemeanors they’d have been guilty of.

    So, what’s the upshot? Alcoholic beverages were seated within an appropriate social context, and they weren’t demonized. If you tell a teenager that they absolutely, positively cannot have something they’ll want it, and when they gain access to it they’ll gorge themselves, especially since you’ve been spending all your time prohibiting it and no time teaching how to have an appropriate relationship with the forbidden fruit.

    I actually think this ordinance will change behavior. Parents will crack down and punish children for throwing house parties. Children will realize that they don’t need a house to have a party and go get absolutely wasted out by the old quarry — or some other such out-of-the-way place — where there are more dangers and help is harder to come by when a danger does arrive.

    [*] Try giving a 5-year-old a sip of beer next time they’re clamoring to see what the grown-ups are drinking. Most don’t take to it

  3. JP says:

    Addressing the negligence issue: Wouldn’t the reasonable parent who has been fined for her kid(s) having hosted two parties take different and more drastic steps than the reasonable parent whose kid(s) have never yet hosted a party? Even short of the kind of drastic actions that most of us agree we’d not want to see a parent take (e.g., the abuse and neglect to which the post refers), some serious/continuous supervision and constraint of the two-time offending kid(s) becomes eminently reasonable.

    Setting aside John Armstrong’s wholly rational objection to the possible enforcement of the law against a family sitting down to dinner with wine, as a parent, I think I have a reasonable expectation that other parents will get a handle on repeated parties taking place at their homes. After the second party, I don’t think it’s asking too much for a parent to deprive her child(ren) enough unsupervised time to organize and host a party. And I think it’s negligent for her not to do so. I’m sympathetic to your students’ sentiments that it’s difficult to keep kids from sneaking a beer now and then. That’s a wholly different dynamic than providing kids the unsupervised time and access to host a kegger at your house. The latter may not be painless to accomplish, but its much more readily achievable than the former.

  4. French sensible says:

    As a resident of French origin, I agree with Mr Armstrong. I also want to point out that it has apparently been proven that familiarity with legally held firearms is correlated with lesser crime overall….my main point here though is that the PC nanny state enforcement-bound (enforced by local police forces that are usually no role-models, or role-models of a kind that will not propel a society forward) of this country is now approaching a level of paranoia and loss of purpose that is worrying. If everything is suspect (thoughts, speeches, attitudes) what is left to enjoy ? rap and sex on TV I assume. Welcome to the Matrix.