Legislator sees alcohol bill through to end

By Anna Heinemann

State Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Worth) said that, early in 2003, his first major legislative effort was going through the motions of a typical first bill by a freshman member of the Illinois House of Representatives.

His first bill passed through the Illinois House of Representatives with little fanfare in March of 2003. His colleagues voted unanimously in its favor. By May of that year, it was in the Illinois Senate, awaiting its turn for consideration.

But then 100 students at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., met in a forest preserve near a classmate’s house for a junior vs. senior girls’ powderpuff football game. The senior girls brutally hazed their classmates, dumping feces, urine, pig intestines, blood and paint on the junior girls as a crowd of their fellow students cheered them on.

Joyce’s legislation went into effect on Oct. 1, 2004. If the bill had been in effect at the time of the hazing, the parents who provided three kegs of beer at the powderpuff game could have been held responsible for any injuries fueled by alcohol that day. The media caught on to the connection, and Joyce said his efforts gained almost instant support.

“Everyone thought, ‘This goes right to the heart of the matter,'” Joyce said. “And there I was, a freshman carrying this pretty significant piece of legislation.”

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    The bill is intended to place more responsibility on adults intentionally providing alcohol to minors under the age of 18 who cause injury to others or damage property while under the influence. Victims can now sue those who provided the alcohol to help pay for their injuries or damages.

    With sudden extra support in the state Senate and from local interest groups, the bill sailed through the Senate and was signed into law as the Drug and Alcohol Minor Impaired Responsibility Act in August 2003.

    By the time the bill went into effect as law earlier this month, more than a year after the hazing, the students of Glenbrook North and the legislation had nearly been forgotten by the media. Those who supported the bill in its path through the Senate said that although its passage was their ultimate goal, they still didn’t know if placing more legal responsibility on adults would deter them from buying alcohol for minors.

    “We want to deter people by the prospect … that they’re going to have to pay,” said State Rep. Paul Froehlich (R-Schaumburg), advocate for alcohol victims’ rights and co-sponsor of the bill. “There’s going to be fewer big brothers and sisters buying (alcohol) for little brothers and sisters because they could be sued … we’re talking real liability here.”

    Richard Mallen, a trial lawyer from Chicago who has worked closely with Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the past 15 years, helped Joyce write the bill and testified in the House on its behalf. Mallen said the bill targets minors under age 18 and adults who “knowingly” provide them with alcohol. He said he thought having such a narrow focus was the only way the bill would pass.

    “People do have to get home, people do crazy things when drinking, and this is one small step to prevent that,” Mallen said of his decision to write the bill with a limited focus.

    Mallen said he wasn’t very successful in a 1998 attempt to discuss other liberal alcohol-related legislation with members of the House and Senate.

    “At that time, it was a very Republican-controlled legislature,” Mallen said. “They were all against a law that would affect business.”

    When Mallen returned in support of Joyce’s bill, Mallen said he made sure the legislation was specific enough to pass in a conservative legislature. Mallen designed the act to specifically target adults who give alcohol to minors under the age of 18 and made it clear that the law wouldn’t involve those serving minors at bars or liquor stores.

    “Before, it was ‘Too bad, victims, too bad.’ The arguments were ridiculous,” he said. “Then (Gov. Rod) Blagojevich was elected and the legislature changed. It was ‘What can we do to help?’ – such a dramatic change.”

    Although its focus may be narrowed, it is still the strictest law of its kind in the nation, Froehlich said. He and Joyce both said that now that the bill has gone into effect, it should be clear that it was meant to scare parents who buy their children alcohol.

    Joyce said the state waited more than a year to put the law into effect to allow several insurance companies time to adjust their policies. Many of those companies will be required to cover homeowners because, if found guilty of aiding underage drinking, the adults responsible could lose their homes.

    If Jerry Elsner, executive director of the Illinois State Crime Commission (ISCC), gets his way, those who do break the law will be homeless – and he isn’t exaggerating. Now that the law is in effect, both Mallen and Joyce said the homes or any assets of adults convicted under the law are in serious jeopardy.

    “A lot of people are going to lose their homes,” Elsner said. “This law’s the real deal. No one has the right to kill my dreams and take my children.”

    The ISCC, a private anti-crime organization based in Chicago, joined the act’s creators in the testimony before the Senate in its support. Elsner is a father of seven and the man his hometown newspaper in Hinsdale, Ill., calls the “biggest bad boy in Illinois” for his strong stance on issues such as minor alcohol consumption and gun control.

    “If this kid goes out there in the minivan, drinking, kills a family of five, they will sue you (the parent) and you will lose everything you have,” Elsner said. “If you give a juvenile alcohol, why don’t you just take a drive and look for the cardboard box you’re going to be living in?”

    Several government officials say they hope parents understand that while they may keep a watchful eye on their children, there is still no way to completely ensure their safety when alcohol is involved.

    “I had just heard people say way too many times ‘It’s OK for kids to drink as long as it’s in my basement,'” said Joyce, a father of five and former high school football and wrestling coach. “I don’t care how careful a parent thinks they are. This act is trying to send a message.”

    During his 20 years as a juvenile police officer, Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart said he saw only a handful of parties involving alcohol that were thrown with the parents’ permission. But, he said, those parents who did allow these parties often gave the excuse that it was better to allow their children to drink at home rather than somewhere without parental supervision.

    “But they have no rights to allow my children to do that, to allow the other children there to do that,” Schweighart said. “And there is no way they can control that the other 100 kids who aren’t at a party in their own home won’t go out and drive themselves home.”

    Elsner said he’s also seen parents who support underage drinking, as long as it’s done at home.

    “But that’s wrong; all you’ve done is give them a good start,” Elsner said.

    Joyce added that it’s hard enough for kids to avoid alcohol as it is, without having their role models contribute to the problem.

    Sgt. Scott Friedlein of the Champaign Police Department specializes in alcohol-related crime and said he agrees with Joyce and believes the act is long overdue.

    “They go through the ritual of taking keys, the whole nine yards,” Friedlein said. “The problem is they don’t know that there’s always another car, another way.”

    Friedlein said he investigated a case several years ago that involved the death of a young man as a result of an alcohol-related accident. After the funeral, Friedlein said the boy’s classmates mourned his death by throwing another party and providing alcohol for everyone who attended.

    “Are we losing our common sense here?” Friedlein asked. “Is it ever truly controlled?”

    Although those who supported the law early on were excited to see it gain so much support, they’re still concerned that the buzz around the law will die down before it can effectively deter adults from buying alcohol for minors.

    “It won’t be publicized until a fiasco happens,” Mallen said. “Maybe then they’d be responsible – they’ll think twice before buying these kids alcohol.”

    Froehlich said the first cases affected by this law will be monumental and some of the first of their kind in the country.

    “Somebody will be first, and it will be a fatality or grievous injury case,” Froehlich said. “Some personal injury lawyer will identify a case and say, ‘Now it’s worth going after.'”

    While Joyce is excited to see continued support from his colleagues about the law, he said he hopes there will be no alcohol-related injuries or property damage incidents that will actually fall under this law’s jurisdiction.

    “I hope this law becomes obsolete,” Joyce said. “You will see very, very strong coverage of this the first time it gets used, but if it saves one life, then it’s worth it.”