Today's question comes from Gerry, a student at San Francisco State, who asks:
Q: “I'm in a fraternity and I am concerned about the parties which the fraternity hosts. There is a lot of booze that is given out by the fraternity. During rush week, and throughout initiation, alcohol is always around and we are told to drink a lot. A lot of us are underage and I am always seeing people get really hammered, sick and passing out. There are people who are supposed to watch them, but they are often drunk themselves and pass out. I am afraid to call for help because I don't want to get myself or my brothers in trouble. How much trouble can we get into? What is the law on this?”
A: Gerry, thank you for your question and for giving thought to this most dangerous and pressing issue. Last year, dozens of college students, many under age, lost their lives as the result of alcohol poisoning. Many of these involved drinking at house parties and fraternity parties. Last fall, a beautiful young man died needlessly in a fraternity house after he had been given excessive amounts of alcohol and was left alone after passing out. In 2013 at San Francisco State, an 18-year-old student died from alcohol poisoning at Lambda Phi Epsilon. The problem you discuss is lethal.
Your question raises several issues: 1) providing alcohol to minors; 2) hazing; and 3) what kind of trouble you can get into if you call 911 when someone has had too much to drink.
California Business and Professions Code Section 25658 states that every person who “sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away any alcoholic beverage to any person under 21 years of age is guilty of a misdemeanor.” Any person who purchases any alcoholic beverage for, furnishes, or gives away any alcoholic beverage to a person under 21 years of age, and they consume the alcohol and cause great bodily injury or death to himself, herself, or any other person, is guilty of a misdemeanor. Civil Code Section 1714 provides for civil penalties (a judgment following a lawsuit) against a parent, guardian or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age.
California Penal Code Section 245.6 makes hazing unlawful. Hazing is defined as any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization or student body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution, which is likely to cause serious bodily injury to any former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university or other educational institution. The penalty for hazing that does not result in serious bodily injury is considered a misdemeanor which can lead to a fine of not less than $100 and not more than $5,000 and imprisonment in the county jail for up to a year. If there is serious bodily injury or death, that may constitute a felony, which can result in not only significant financial penalties but also incarceration for up to three years. Additionally, as with Section 1714, any party found to be responsible can be sued for financial damages.
If you know of someone in danger from alcohol poisoning, please, call 911. You won't get in trouble and you can save a life. Business and Professions Code Section 22567 provides immunities against criminal prosecution for minors that call for help when any person under the age of 21 is in danger. When a minor calls 911 and reports that either himself or herself, or another person, is in need of medical assistance due to alcohol consumption, they will be immune from criminal prosecution for possession or providing alcohol if: the underage person was the first person to make the 911 report, they remained on the scene with the other person until that medical assistance arrived and they cooperated with medical assistance and law enforcement personnel on the scene.
So the best way to avoid trouble, and tragedy, is to call for help. Do the right thing, Gerry, before someone else dies.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.