In the living room, police found a girl and a boy passed out on the couch, with the boy lying facedown. The kitchen was a sea of red plastic cups, and, according to police, marijuana paraphernalia was strewn around the basement. Police gathered partygoers from the basement, as well as those hiding in upstairs bedrooms and the garage, and administered Breathalyzer tests. They issued 11 citations that night. One teen also was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Around 1:30 a.m., as the last parents arrived at the house to pick up their sons and daughters, the officers received another call on their radios: a fatal drunk-driving accident less than 6 miles away. Although the accident wasn’t connected to the Stonegate party—it involved a 49-year-old driver—White wonders if an underage drinking citation three decades earlier might have saved the man’s life.
At the scene of the accident, where he went after the party, White watched the Montgomery County Police Collision Reconstruction Unit at work.
“When parents come to pick their kids up at parties, they ask us why we’re ruining their kids’ lives [with citations],” White said. “I want to show them this”—he gestured toward the mangled car with the driver’s body still inside—“this is why.”
Sometimes, of course, even a parent’s best efforts to prevent underage drinking can fail. Just ask Bethesda’s E.J. Dionne and his wife, Mary Boyle.
They say they did everything they could in December 2012 to ensure that there would be no drinking at the 1920s-themed, 18th-birthday party they threw for their daughter, a Whitman High School senior at the time, and 80 of her friends.
“We were very wary about the party,” says Dionne, a Washington Post op-ed columnist. “We said 100 times that we wanted no drinking. Best we knew, [our daughter] had let all her friends know.”
Dionne hid the little alcohol he kept in the house and stationed two security guards at the front door to ensure that partygoers didn’t bring in alcohol and hadn’t already been drinking. He didn’t know that the teens had discussed the no-drinking rule over social media earlier in the day. Some made plans to meet an hour or so before the party and pre-game, or drink before the party started. One girl said she and her friends each drank several shots of hard liquor. All of them managed to slip past the security.
The party went fine at first. “Kids were dancing, and as far as I could tell there was no drinking,” Dionne says. Then an obviously drunk girl arrived, made it past security and passed out on a living room couch. “My wife and I were very worried,” Dionne says. “We tried to wake her up, we tried to reach her parents and couldn’t, so we called an ambulance.”
After that, Dionne says, “everything else just went crazy.”
The call for an ambulance triggered a call to police. Dionne acknowledges that his wife initially didn’t want to let officers inside. “We just wanted an ambulance, not the police,” Officer Jeffrey Innocenti recalls her saying. But after a teen leaving the house told the officers that “everyone inside is drunk,” Boyle relented.
At 10:30 p.m., the mother of a Whitman senior received a call from Dionne, asking her to pick up her daughter. “She’s in no condition to drive home,” he said. When the woman arrived, “it looked like a war zone,” she recalls. “There were multiple police cars with lights flashing, an ambulance, stretchers and EMTs. It was unbelievable.” Inside the house, she found her daughter drunk and waiting for police to issue her a citation.
In the end, officers cited 33 underage drinkers with BACs as high as .23. That’s the equivalent of 10 drinks in an hour for a 160-pound male and six to seven for a 120-pound female.
Neither Dionne nor his wife or daughter received citations.
“What’s scary are the kids who continue functioning with these extremely high BAC levels,” says Officer William Morrison, who retired from the Alcohol Initiatives Section in October after almost 28 years. “A BAC of .20 would put you or me on the ground. These kids are sitting around having conversations. These are kids who’ve been drinking for a long time and built up that tolerance.”
For Dionne and his wife, the incident was devastating. They’re adamant that they’ll never host another teenage party. “We have one more teenager at home who knows that,” Dionne says. His advice to parents: Celebrate birthdays by going out to dinner.
“[The birthday party] was a terrible experience,” Dionne says. “After a year, I laugh a little now—but the laughter is just covering the sadness.”
Gabriele McCormick is a frequent contributor to the magazine. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.