Burnetts won't face charges for underage drinking

District attorney declines to prosecute Menlo Park parents

Two parents won't be prosecuted for alleged underage drinking at a party held in their Menlo Park home on Nov. 25, the San Mateo County district attorney's office said Wednesday.

San Mateo County Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato explained that six months of investigation failed to provide sufficient evidence that the parents committed a crime in connection with the underage drinking.

"The question was, could we establish that they were furnishing alcohol to minors? And we were unable to establish that. Next the question becomes whether it amounts to contributing to the delinquency of minors in terms of whether they knew alcohol was there or were criminally negligent," Serrato said on May 16. "(The drinking) didn't devolve into anything further, no vandalism or drunk driving. At the end of the day we gave it a real good look and it just didn't amount to proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case drew national attention. The parents, William and Cynthia Burnett, told reporters that they did not provide alcohol during the party and had made it clear drinking wasn't allowed. No alcohol was spotted during their patrols of the party, according to the couple. Their teenage son was celebrating a Menlo-Atherton High School football game victory with a crowd of friends that grew to about 44 people, according to the district attorney.

After receiving an anonymous phone call complaining that underage drinking might be going on, Menlo Park police broke up the party and arrested Burnett, a Stanford University assistant professor in mechanical engineering and the executive director of the university's Institute of Design. His wife also faced charges, but wasn't arrested due to a medical condition.

The couple's 21-year-old daughter raised allegations of inappropriate police conduct following the arrest. Serrato said the family was free to dislike the way the officers approached it, but that nothing he saw caused any particular concern. "Our role isn't to second-guess the manner in which officers are doing things. My view is that they were doing the best they could in a difficult situation with a lot of kids who had been drinking."

Neither Mr. Burnett nor his defense attorney, Jeffrey Hayden, was immediately available for comment.

As of January 2011, "social host" laws in California allow parents or other adults to be prosecuted for knowingly letting minors drink on their property. "Parents think they're providing a safe environment for young people, but those young people have to go home, they can be drunk driving, they get sick," Serrato commented. "Many times the parents of the other kids don't know what's happening. It's just an extremely dangerous thing."

Almanac reporter Dave Boyce contributed to this report.


Like this comment
Posted by Bill Kelly
a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2012 at 9:01 am

This is a classic case of conflict to ideals. As a parent, is it more important to keep your kids safe and allow them to drink the alcohol that they are already going to imbibe or should we say NO to all knowledge of the situation and have them drink where they may be unsafe? Is drinking and driving and parental ignorance better than the alternative? What if your kid gets killed on the way home from an unsupervised drinking event, or kills someone else? I think the MP police overstepped their bounds on this one, and I think the DA did the right thing. I could have dispensed with the DA preaching.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2012 at 9:11 am

I agree with Bill.

This is the second similar story in the Palo Alto area in recent years. Parents who try to do the right thing and look after drunk kids who arrive on their doorsteps are criminalized by the police who are called by someone who think something suspicious may be going on. Whereas calling the police isn't necessarily the wrong thing to do, the attitude of the police who assume that the homeowners are the ones who have provided the alcohol is completely wrong.

Instead of victimizing the parents, the police should be supporting them for looking out for young people who have already arrived drunk and prevented them from getting back into their cars or consuming more alcohol which these young people acquired themselves.

At last, some praise for sensible parental behavior please.

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Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 17, 2012 at 10:51 am

There was no outrageous behavior by the kids here. The Police need to stop this crap and do work that has real meaning and leads to he prosecution of real criminals.

If there is nothing better for them to do, then perhaps there are too many officers on the payroll?! From the published salary survey that I saw, the city could save a bundle and could cut back on Police over time pay. . . that is where the real crime is.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm

> There was no outrageous behavior by the kids here

Being drunk, or even drinking alcohol, by teenagers, is outrageous behavior. One can only wonder what the police would have done if the Burnetts had called them for help. Would the police have arrested the teens?

This whole situation reeks! The Burnetts have had their lives turned upside down, spent doubtless tens of thousands of dollars, and the public has spent tens of thousands of dollars. All for what?

None of the kids was arrested. None has learned anything from the experience--other than they can make a mess out of other people's lives by drinking and acting irresponsibly!

Like this comment
Posted by Carrie
a resident of Downtown North
on May 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Need to track down the snitch on this one.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Granddad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 17, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Bob says: Being drunk, or even drinking alcohol, by teenagers, is outrageous behavior.

Really, Bob, where's your sense of perspective? Even drinking alcohol by teenagers is outrageous behavior? Are you shocked, shocked, like Captain Renault in Casablanca? By all means, let's arrest any kid who even takes a sip of wine. In fact, let's arrest any teenager who even sniffs alcohol! Prison is too good for them!

And while we're at it, let's encourage our police officers to spend time harassing parents who are trying to keep things in order, instead of supporting our police in their efforts to reduce vandalism, burglary, robbery, assault and battery, and other trifling crimes.

The problem in this case was overreaction by the police. A little common sense on their part would have saved a lot of money and trouble for all concerned. A little common sense on your part might lead you to consider the serious problems we face in this society.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2012 at 7:26 am

> where's your sense of perspective?

Where it should be.

> Even drinking alcohol by teenagers is outrageous behavior?

These kids drove to the Burnett's home, didn't they? So .. sounds like this poster does not have any problem with teen drinking and driving.

How old were these kids? 15, 16, 17 .. and you see nothing with children this age wandering around town, by whatever means at their availability, getting into one kind of trouble, or another.

This bunch of irresponsible kids has cost the Burnetts, and the public well over $250,000 in public/private spending. This money has achieved nothing good. Luckily, they didn't kill anyone, but there is always another time for these kids.

There is plenty of time in every young person's life to start drinking. There is no reason to advocate, and endorse, public intoxication, or public consumption.

> As of January 2011, "social host" laws in California allow
> parents or other adults to be prosecuted for knowingly
> letting minors drink on their property.

Wonder how many parents will be prosecuted by this new law? Wonder if it will have any impact on teen drunk driving traffic fatalities?

Am I shocked that these kids were drinking? Yes, particularly since most people in the US don't believe that their kids should be drinking and doing drugs. (Oh, did the police check for drugs?) But I am more shocked at the blase attitude of those claiming the cops overreacted. This "social host" law seems to suggest that they did not. What's missing from this picture is some comment from the DA about what this new law means for parents. It would seem that the Burnetts did not provide alcohol. But what if they had not been home? What if these kids raided the liquor locker in their absence, with the Burnett's kids' approval? And what might have happened if some of these kids went out for more alcohol and ended up in a fatal accident--killing themselves, or someone else's kids? Would you be shocked?

I am shocked the low level of moral outrage in this town, where teen behavior is concerned.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2012 at 8:10 am

It is hard being the parent of a teen. Not only do you have to be responsible for your own teen, but if any teen comes to your door you have to check his breath, check his pockets or backpack for booze, and take away his car keys (if you can find out whether he arrived by car) before letting him into your home to spend time with your own teen. And what about if you were in the bathroom when the doorbell rang and your teen got to the front door first?

I wonder how many of us do that?

Like this comment
Posted by Bias for the rich
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2012 at 11:47 am

44 teens are in your house after a football game and you didn't know they were drinking.
Yeah, right.

Like this comment
Posted by haja
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I'm very surprised at the attitude of most of the adults on this blog. Allowing kids to drink at your home because they think it's "more important to keep your kids safe and allow them to drink the alcohol that they are already going to imbibe or should we say NO to all knowledge of the situation and have them drink where they may be unsafe?" is a cop-out. These are parents who are afraid to say "no" to their kids. While I agree that most teens drink some alcohol while they're in high school, the extent of how much/often they drink is greatly controlled by their parents attitude toward the drinking. In short, the easier you make it for them to drink, the more they're going to drink. And the more they drink, the more likely they are to become alcoholic and to damage their still immature brains.

Furthermore, when my kids were in high school, I really resented other parents deciding that it was "more safe for my kids to drink at their home than somewhere else". No other adult has the right to serve my kid alcohol. That's a decision they can make for their own kids but not for mine.

And for those adults who feel that it's "safe" for kids to drink "in a home" let me tell you - I've seen kids that left parties walking (not driving) who were passed out on a parkway lawn and a park (one in each spot) and were picked up by an ambulance and treated for alcohol poisoning. They could have rolled into the dark street and been hit by cars - or if they hadn't been discovered at all, could have been dead by morning. Just because they're not driving doesn't mean they're safe. The reports from kids at these same parties described kids vomiting uncontrollably, sex in the laundry rooms, etc. There was no more control/safety at the "adult supervised" parties than there was unsupervised parties. Do you imagine that these kids are having a beer or two and behaving like mature adults?

And yes- when you have teenage kids at home, you do have to check out the other teens that come to the door and spend time in your house. You have a responsibility to make sure that they come to no harm in your home - if nothing else by calling their parents. It's time for parents to be the grown ups.

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