Mary Bier’s memories of her nephew, Jonny, are painful ones. The once-vibrant 19-year-old changed, she said, when he was allowed to start drinking at his family home in Pacifica.
“I watched it change my nephew,” she said. “The light disappeared from his eyes when he started drinking and using drugs … I loved that kid.”
Ultimately, the drinking killed Jonny Bier. He and his girlfriend, 16-year-old Stephanie Echeverri, were killed in a drunk driving accident as they returned from a house party in February 2005.
It was in his memory, and in the hopes of preventing more deaths like his, that the Pacifica City Council on Monday adopted an ordinance aimed at cracking down on underage drinking in private homes.
The Social Host Liability Ordinance, which goes into effect next month and is the first of its kind in the county, will hold property owners responsible for underage drinking occurring on their premises.
The ordinance, which builds on the existing “Loud or Unruly Parties” rule, allows police to issue civil administrative citations to party-throwers on a first response by police when underage drinking occurs, Pacifica Police Capt. Dave Bertini said. Citations can be issued on a second response even when no underage drinking occurs.
Since Jonny Bier’s 2005 death, Bertini and Mary Bier, both class of 1986 Terra Nova High School graduates, have collaborated in their efforts to break residents of the belief that it’s OK to let teens drink within the family home.
Bertini described that belief and the resulting drinking as part of the local culture.
“I would classify [underage drinking] as a huge problem in Pacifica,” Bertini said. “We’re trying to attack this.”
Bertini said some parents let their kids drink at home because they think it’s safer than drinking elsewhere. But the 24-year Pacifica police veteran finds that rationale dumfounding. “What kind of message is that to your kids?”
Bertini and Bier will appear before the council again on May 9 to discuss the citation amounts linked to the ordinance. In addition to the fines, the city may also bill violators for police, fire and emergency services.
“The cost of response is one thing, but the cost of human lives … it’s incalculable,” Bertini said. “Even if one person dies, you can’t put a value on that.”
According to a staff report prepared by local police, alcohol is the most consistently used drug among adolescents, and a child who starts drinking before 15 is four times more likely to become an alcoholic than someone who waits until 20 or older. Bertini added that alcohol use among Pacifica’s youth is higher than the state and national averages.
Similar ordinances have been passed in recent years in the North Bay cities of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and San Rafael, as well as in Santa Clara County.
Now a coordinator for the Partnership for a Safe and Healthy Pacifica, Bier today works with students from Oceana High School to spread the word on community safety. She said her brother, Jonny’s father, who now lives in Arizona, has told her that he now regrets letting his son drink in the house.
“Anyone who can stand up and admit they made a mistake … is pretty cool,” she said.
Four out of 5 young people in Pacifica and Daly City report seeing other youths drink when parents aren’t home.
Source: Pacifica Police
Annual underage drinking deaths: 5,000
Number of those deaths that occurred as a result of car crashes: 1,900
Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Among high school students within a 30-day period:
- 42% drank some amount of alcohol
- 24% binge drank
- 10% drove after drinking alcohol
- 28% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol
Source: 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Centers for Disease Control