Appellate court throws out city’s ‘house party’ ban

In a controversial decision, the San Diego Superior Court’s Appellate Division struck down the city’s “Social Host Ordinance” — also called the “house party” ordinance — as unconstitutionally broad in an Oct. 7 ruling.

The law, enacted unanimously by the city council in March 2003, was designed to curb underage drinking by making it illegal for hosts to supply alcohol to their underage guests.

If convicted of the misdemeanor under the provision, violators faced up to a $1,000 fine and six months in county jail.

The appellate court struck down the law for its lack of specificity in defining what constitutes an infraction of the provision, calling on lawmakers to revise it.

“No criminal intent, knowledge or criminal negligence is required to establish a violation of the ordinance,” stated Judge Louis Hanoian, who chaired the three-judge appellate panel. “The city council, if it wishes, knows how to express its intent that knowledge be an element of an offense.”

Proponents of the statute described it as an important step in combating illegal drinking.

“This was a great tool for law enforcement,” said Patty Drieslein, a community crime prevention advocate who supported the ordinance. “Police were going to these houses with underage drinking but nothing really happened to the host. … This gets at the root of the problem.”

Opponents said the bill placed an unfair burden on party hosts.

“If you throw a party, how are you going to control all the people who come?” Thurgood Marshall College senior Heetae Kim said. “I can’t be held responsible for everybody. It should be their responsibility to drink or not.”

Despite the ruling, the court did uphold the spirit of the law.

“Attempting to decrease the incidence of underage consumption is a proper and laudable government purpose,” the court’s opinion stated.

The case was filed when Derek Blithe, a student at San Diego State, was arrested after two underage girls were found drinking at a fraternity party at his home in Mission Beach.

Blithe and his attorney, Patrick Dudley, challenged the law in court. Although the court found in favor of the city, Blithe and his attorney appealed the ruling. The appellate panel that overseas misdemeanor appeals overruled the Superior Court’s decision.

“It was a fantastic ruling,” Dudley said. “[This law] has serious impacts on the freedom to assemble. … You should be able to have those folks over without constantly monitoring everybody, making sure nobody slips some rum into their Coke. It’s a really good decision for college students.”

However, the decision may not be the final ruling in the case. The city is planning to appeal the court’s decision, according to Maria Velasquez, press secretary for the city attorney’s office.

Though she said the case was “very important,” City Counsel Simon Silva declined to comment on the merits of the decision until after the appeal. Silva helped to write the original ordinance.