Asked about the decision on May 16, 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," Mr. Serrato said. "(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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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, responded to requests 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," Mr. 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.