MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Parents in Fond du Lac County can host underage drinkers in their homes without running afoul of a local prohibition, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled the county's ordinance is invalid because it's stricter than a state law that blocks adults from hosting underage drinkers only in taverns and liquor stores. The ruling could invalidate similarly worded local anti-hosting ordinances across the state.
"Rulings like this send a mixed message on the importance of the 21-year-old drinking age and what municipalities can do to combat underage drinking," said Frank Harris, national director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. "Hosting laws are supposed to make parents think twice before throwing an underage drinking party for their kids."
The ruling stems from a case involving a Van Dyne man named Stuart Muche. He was cited in June 2015 with violating Fond du Lac County's ordinance against adults hosting underage drinkers in their residences after underage people began drinking at a graduation party he threw for his son. Muche was assessed a $1,000 forfeiture.
He argued on appeal that the local ordinance was invalid because it doesn't conform with a state law that bars adults from hosting underage drinkers on a premises that the adult owns or controls. He contended that statutes define premises in this context as an area described in a license or permit -- namely, a tavern or a liquor store.
The appellate court agreed with him, ruling 3-0 that Fond du Lac's definition improperly goes beyond the state law.
The court also found that the ordinance's penalties don't conform with state law, noting that the ordinance prescribes forfeitures ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 while under state law a first offense carries a maximum forfeiture of $500. The court said local penalties can't exceed state penalties.
Judge Paul Reilly wrote in a concurring opinion that he believes the ordinance doesn't conform with the state law because of the discrepancy between forfeiture amounts but the case should have been resolved on that basis alone and delving into an analysis of the premises definition was "unwise."
"To conclude that (state law) is only violated if the adult owns a liquor store or tavern and allows an underage party to occur at the store or tavern is the wrong reading ... and is clearly not what the Legislature wrote or intended," Reilly wrote.
Fond du Lac County Assistant District Attorney Curtis Borsheim, who handled the appeal for the county, didn't immediately respond to a voicemail left at his office Wednesday afternoon.
The Wisconsin Counties Association filed briefs in the case supporting the local ordinance. The association's attorney, Patrick Henneger, declined comment. A message left at WCA's offices wasn't immediately returned.