CHULA VISTA–Local municipalities can save time and money by changing the way they prosecute individuals charged with hosting underage drinking parties, two Ventura County officials said Friday.

Speaking at a quarterly breakfast hosted by the Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego County in Chula Vista, Thousand Oaks Assistant Police Chief James Fryhoff told dozens of local public health and safety advocates about Ventura County’s success in using civil rather than criminal penalties to cite individuals charged with violating social host ordinances – the laws that make hosting an underage drinking party illegal.

“Civil citations are easier and faster to prosecute because they require a lower standard of proof and the cases are quickly addressed outside the criminal justice system by a hearing officer,” said Fryhoff. “Thanks to this expedited process, officers in Ventura County are able to issue social host citations more frequently and efficiently and that frees up our limited resources.”

Similar to Ventura, San Diego is one of the few counties in the nation to have social host ordinances implemented in all of its cities and the unincorporated area. But currently 12 of the county’s 18 municipalities don’t have the option to file these types of cases civilly.

“We need to give our cities more tools to address these parties. We’ve conducted interviews with several of our local law enforcement agencies and we continue to hear that most of our current social host ordinances are time and resource intensive,” said Beth Sise, chairwoman of the San Diego County Alcohol Policy Panel and Director of Research and Injury Prevention, Trauma Service at Scripps Mercy Hospital.

In criminal proceedings, prosecutors require additional evidence indicating that the person who was in control of the party knew or should have known that minors were consuming alcohol. This happens in Escondido, which is one of those local cities that lacks the ability to address these cases civilly.

“When we find house parties where it looks like minors are drinking, we’re required to take a lot of photographs and document the age of all the individuals at the party,” said Escondido Police Chief Carter, who also serves on the San Diego County Alcohol Policy Panel. “In serious cases it’s warranted, but our officers would like to have the discretion to write a quick citation that immediately ends the party yet still holds the host liable,” he said.

According to Fryhoff, this is possible in civil cases because monetary fines and community service are the only penalties. But Ventura law allows criminal charges when strong penalties, such as jail time, are warranted.

Public health officials say that this approach appears to be having an impact on reducing youth access to alcohol in Ventura County. Although other factors may have contributed, since the social host ordinance was implemented the number of high schools students in Ventura County who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is trending downward, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey. Meanwhile, youth access rates statewide remain relatively stable.

Dan Hicks, prevention services manager for the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department, who also spoke at the event, sees this as a promising sign. “We looked at this survey closely and found that our high school students are finding it more difficult to obtain alcohol. That’s what the social host ordinance is all about,” he said.