Appeals court considering case of Baldwin City mother who hosted teen drinking party
A Baldwin City mom admitted in court documents to letting her teenage daughter and underage friends party at her home one night last summer as she drank along with them.
Yet Sherry Haskell was not found guilty of unlawfully hosting minors consuming alcohol.
The Kansas Court of Appeals is now considering Haskell’s case, which hinges on a single word in the law she was charged with breaking: "invitees."
Depending on the court’s decision, the Kansas Legislature may take a closer look at that phrasing, said Rep. John Rubin of Shawnee, chairman of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee and an attorney by trade.
“Certainly the wording of statutes does matter,” Rubin said, “and it’s quite often the determining factor in criminal cases as to whether the person can be charged or convicted or not.”
Haskell was charged last July in connection with the June 2013 bonfire at her house in the 800 block of East 1750 Road. Two of the young partiers were severely burned when a gas can near the fire exploded, court documents say.
Haskell, a school worker at the time, was scheduled for trial in January. Instead, Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny dismissed the case.
The statute defines the crime as permitting an “invitee” to use one’s property in a way that results in the possession or consumption of alcohol by a minor.
Assistant District Attorney Eve Kemple argued that Haskell did meet the intention of the statute. Haskell’s defense attorney, Adam Hall, argued that the legal definition of "invitee" is not, in fact, a social guest but rather a person allowed on a property for business purposes.
Pokorny agreed with the defense, noting that her job was to uphold statutes as written and that in this case the minors were social guests.
The state appealed the case, saying the district court erred by dismissing it and should have followed the “plain language” instead, according to a brief filed by Assistant District Attorney Patrick Hurley.
The appeals court is reviewing the case but has yet to schedule oral arguments or a decision date.
If the court reverses Pokorny’s decision, the case against Haskell would be reinstated, Kemple and Hurley said.
If the court upholds the decision, Haskell will remain off the hook.
But that doesn’t mean the statute is off the hook.
Rubin declined to comment specifically on Haskell’s case but said wording changes are addressed “with some degree of regularity” in what the Legislature calls “cleanup bills.”
He said he believes the statute in question is intended to apply to anyone invited onto a property.
“As a general principal, I don’t think it would have been the intent of the Legislature to excuse someone from criminal responsibility,” Rubin said.
Phone calls to a number listed for Haskell’s residence were not answered this week.
At the time of the bonfire Haskell was head cook at Baldwin Elementary School Intermediate Center, but she is no longer employed by the school district.
Last month the school board voted to terminate Haskell’s work agreement, Superintendent Paul Dorathy said. He declined to comment on the reason, saying it’s a personnel issue.