As I mentioned in an earlier post, a Birmingham suburb is considering an ordinance that criminalizes possessing a house in which an “open house party” occurs. An open house party occurs whenever two or more underage people consume alcohol in the home. As a consequence, any time parents allow their two kids to have wine at dinner they’re hosting an illegal house party. Mountain Brook’s police chief suggests that this won’t be a problem because the police can’t enter the house without some suspicion of misconduct and “no one really calls and says, `my mom lets my brother drink at dinner.'”
I’m not sure I like seeing the Fourth Amendment used in this fashion. It seems to me that a criminal law should be narrowly drawn to address the problem at hand. If we really think that it should be a crime for two or more underage kids to drink at home, regardless of the circumstances, we shouldn’t find excuses for why the law won’t be enforced at inopportune times. We should exclude those situations. And if we don’t exclude them, it seems to me that we want to find ways to stop those evil-doing parents who toast the new year with their underage issue.
While this law is minor, it’s relatively easy to see how hiding behind the Fourth Amendment becomes a way to encourage unnecessary lawmaking: the consequences of overbroad new laws are explained away as unlikely and irrelevant to selected citizens. At the same time, these provisions can be used, selectively, to generate a justification for entering homes that might otherwise be of interest to police. In my view, the only acts that should be crimes are those that a family in Mountain Brook – or Scarsdale or Winnetka or anywhere else – would be willing to forego in the privacy of their home. If the regulation seems to intrude too much on personal or family matters, it’s probably a bad law.