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Appeals court reverses underage drinking verdict
By Kevin Murphy

For the Times

MADISON - A state appeals court Thursday reversed a not-guilty verdict for a Monroe youth's underage drinking citation, finding that he was not "accompanied" by a parent within the meaning of the law.

The District IV Court of Appeals concluded that Circuit Judge James Beer misinterpreted the definition of "accompanied," and ordered him to find Connar Stephen Koch, 18, guilty of unlawful possession or consumption of alcohol.

According to court documents:

Koch was 17 years old and hosting a party on Aug. 18, 2013 at his father's 12th Street residence. At 4 a.m., police officers Corey Mills and Taylor Heiman responded to a loud noise complaint coming from a group of individuals in a garage.

Koch told Mills that he had been drinking. Mills testified that there were no adults around until Koch's father, Steve Koch, came to the garage 10 to 15 minutes after police arrived. Steve Koch appeared to have been sleeping, the officers testified.

Koch was cited for underage drinking. He contested the charge at trial in December when Beer found him not guilty because he was accompanied by a parent.

Beer explained that he thought it was a "silly" exception to permit underage drinking if the parent is present, but the city had not convinced him the exception was invalid in Koch's case.

Assistant City Attorney Craig Nolen appealed the ruling, contending there was no proof that Koch's father was present while his son was drinking.

State law prohibits persons under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol if not accompanied by a parent, guardian or spouse who is of legal drinking age.

Nolen said he filed an appeal to clarify the legal definition of "accompanied" as it applies to underage drinking statutes.

"To date there has been no opinion on this section of the law; what constitutes accompanying," Nolen said.

Nolen also disagreed with Beer's interpretation of accompanied as Koch's father was not supervising his son's party or even present for at least some of it.

"He was on the premises ... but the testimony was he was sleeping," Nolen said.

The appeals opinion faulted Koch's brief, unavailable Thursday on the state court system's website, for failing to cite any case law in support of his argument that he was not guilty. Instead, the opinion stated that it would address the city's argument on the accompanied definition to assist judges and attorneys in future cases.

Appellate Judge Paul Higginbotham used a definition of accompanied established in a case involving the sale or dispending of alcohol to an underage person. To accompany an underage individual in that case, the same appeals court found that the parent must not just be on the premises but also supervising and controlling the underage drinker, Higginbotham wrote.

"Here, (Steve Koch) ... was asleep in a different part of the premises, was not even aware that Koch had been drinking. These facts support our conclusion that the father was not "accompanying' Koch within the meaning of the (statute) while Koch consumed alcohol," wrote Higginbotham in the seven-page opinion.

Told about the opinion Thursday morning, Nolen said the appeals court "got it right."

"The importance of underage drinking laws to deter underage drinking. The Legislature said you must be 21 to drink unless you're accompanied. This should help define accompanied in this setting," he said.

Unless he further appeals, Koch faces a maximum forfeiture of $100, $263 in court costs and a suspension of his driver's license at sentencing, Nolen said.

Nolen said Koch had been cited for underage drinking previous to August 2013.

Efforts to contact Koch Thursday were unsuccessful.