In Not-Guilty Finding, Judge Faults ‘Weak’ Social Host Law

In a decision released on Monday, an Amagansett man, Arthur W. Bijur, was found not guilty of violating the county’s “social host” law, as well as the Town of East Hampton’s mass gathering law following a bench trial in January before East Hampton Town Justice Steven Tekulsky.

In his decision, Justice Tekulsky was strongly critical of the wording of Suffolk County’s social host law, which forbids adults from knowingly allowing minors to consume alcohol. 

Both charges against Mr. Bijur were misdemeanors. 

He was represented by Daniel Rogers. Patrick Fedun, an assistant district attorney, prosecuted the case. 

The charges against Mr. Bijur stem from an after-prom party his son hosted last spring for fellow Ross School students. Mr. Bijur had sent out an email to the students and their parents laying down strict ground rules regarding the consumption of alcohol. He required that parents and the teens confirm that they understood the terms he was setting down. He also promised, Justice Tekulsky wrote, that a second parent would be in attendance. 

The party lasted about an hour and a half, and ended at 12:30 a.m., when Mr. Bijur learned that a student who had not been invited was suffering from alcohol poisoning in his basement. An ambulance was called, and Mr. Bijur sent the teens home. 

When rendering a verdict in a bench trial, judges are not required to release a written decision. However, Justice Tekulsky wrote, “The facts in this case as regards to the social host law and what the court believes to be a weakness in the law itself lend themselves to a fuller discussion and explanation.” 

The law, Justice Tekulsky wrote, requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an adult in charge of a premises where youths are consuming alcohol “knew and was actually aware that alcohol was being consumed.”

“There was no dispute that there was no direct evidence to prove that the defendant was aware” that minors were drinking alcohol at the party, Justice Tekulsky wrote. That, he said, left the prosecutor to prove that Mr. Bijur knew about the drinking through circumstantial evidence, such as photographs of empty cups and containers of alcoholic beverages.

Mr. Bijur testified that he was in his office upstairs while the party was going on, and went down to the first floor twice to check on the guests. The second adult that Mr. Bijur had promised would monitor the party had canceled on him.

But, Justice Tekulsky wrote, “There can be no dispute but that the great majority of alcohol was in the basement and the defendant testified that he never went into the basement until he learned of the young man who was clearly drunk and ill.”

Justice Tekulsky found that the evidence that was provided him during the trial was not enough to overcome the reasonable doubt standard. “What is of concern to the court, however,” he wrote, “is the fact that the behavior of this defendant in setting up and hosting the party is precisely the type of conduct that the Legislature would want to prohibit by the ‘social host’ law but isn’t.” 

“Although he acknowledged the possibility that kids this age might try to sneak alcohol into the party, he took no steps to prevent that. He never went into the basement, although it was possible to gain entrance into the basement from the outside. Even though he saw red cups throughout the first floor, he never looked into any of the cups to see if they contained alcohol.”

However, Justice Tekulsky wrote, “The ‘social host’ law does not impose any duty whatsoever on the responsible adult to do even that. Under the ‘social host’ law as written, the defendant could have stayed in his office on the second floor for the entire party and then there would be no question at all that he did not know that there were minors consuming alcohol.”

The requirement in the Suffolk County social host law that the prosecution provide strong proof that the responsible adult actually knows that alcohol is being consumed is too difficult to prove, Justice Tekulsky said. However, he contrasted that law to the one in Nassau County, where the standard is different. There, the responsible adult would be found guilty of violating the social host law if he either is aware of, or has reason to be aware of, the consumption of alcohol by a minor on the premises. Under that standard, Justice Tekulsky wrote that he would have reached a different verdict. 

Mr. Bijur reiterated yesterday that he took every reasonable precaution before and during the party. He also expressed concern that a law as restrictive as Nassau County’s could ultimately boomerang. If a parent is acting in the role of the responsible adult, “and takes even outrageous measures,” Mr. Bijur said, such as frisking the youths, and a minor still managed to consume alcohol, “that parent would be guilty.”

The result could be teenage parties not monitored by adults. If something were to go wrong, “Who is going to be there?” Mr. Bijur asked.

“The way the law is written, I can’t imagine anyone taking a plea of guilty on a case like this,” Mr. Rogers said Monday. “The point being, that the law is so poorly drafted, and the bar so high for a conviction, coupled with the fact that it is a criminal offense, you would be nuts to plead guilty.”

It is the second case in less than a year in which a parent represented by Mr. Rogers, and accused of violating the social host law, has been cleared of the charge. In June of last year, all charges in Southampton Town Justice Court against Susan E. Guinchard Kinsella, a North Haven parent who had hosted a party for her daughter where police said alcohol was consumed, were dropped.