The "Amish Mafia", Underage Drinking and Host Liability

The new television show, “Amish Mafia,” is creating quite a stir in both the Plain and English communities. Reports indicate that this is the most successful show ever launched by the Discovery Channel and that there are now in excess of 3 million viewers per episode.

A small group of Amish and Mennonite men and women are portrayed as an organized crime family, with “Lebanon Levi” heading the operation and directing its activities. Levi Stoltzfus, the son of an actual Amish Deacon (David Peachey), has a number of henchmen, including Alvin, John and Jolin. In an initial episode, Alan Beiler, (the adopted son of a Lancaster Mennonite family and described by his colleagues on the show as “Schwarz Amish”) was indicated to have been a key associate of Levi’s, but criminal charges landed him in hot water with both the gang and the Pennsylvania State Police. He disappeared from subsequent episodes but just reappeared at the end of the season, being shown leaving prison. Levi also has a love interest, Esther Schmucker, a woman portrayed in what is described as Amish garb, who is the sister of John Schmucker, both in the show and in real life. Alvin Lantz, described and portrayed as Amish, acts as Levi’s right hand man. He is second in command and takes over when Levi travels to a Florida beach for a get away with Esther.

John and Esther express dissatisfaction with John’s limited role in Levi’s operation. Their father had headed this organized crime operation prior to his death. For some reason, John was unable or unprepared to step up and take over. Levi stepped in to fill the void. John is also frustrated by the limited income he receives for his efforts. He is the only gang member who has yet to have enough money to buy a car. This is a source of significant conflict between John and the others. As a result, John becomes an easy recruit for Merlin, an Amish-man from Holmes County, Ohio who is looking to extend his criminal enterprise to Lancaster County. He has plans to force Levi out and take over his operation in Lancaster.

Merlin, who explains that he became tough while serving a sentence after a criminal conviction as the only Amish inmate in an Ohio prison, comes to Lancaster to compete in what Levi describes as a “Pimp Your Buggy” competition. This event takes place in conjunction with a small car show and includes a number of buggies. Merlin arrives in his very fancy buggy and, based on a prior understanding with John, expects to win the money that goes along with first prize. That plan goes awry when a ringer, a friend of Levi, shows up in a hot rod t-bucket type buggy. At that point Merlin realizes he has been outmaneuvered. He becomes very angry and describes how he will get even.

The final episodes of the first season depict Merlin’s efforts to make this happen. He recruits John to arrange and stage buggy races. The show indicates that such races are very popular in Ohio and a source of revenue for Merlin’s operation. Levi does not allow such races in Lancaster. John is successful in putting a race together. There is much betting on the several entries. Alvin and Jolin find out about the race, show up, and proceed to destroy John’s buggy at the conclusion of the race. Merlin, unhappy with this show of strength by Levi’s guys, follows Levi and Alvin to a bar in Lancaster. While Levi and Alvin are inside drinking, one of Merlin’s strongmen smashes out the front window of Levi’s Cadillac with an ax. To be sure that Levi understands who was behind this act, a business card with the name “Merlin” is left under the driver’s side windshield wiper. Subsequently, Merlin’s associates destroy Levi’s office and then torch the temporary trailer he was using as an office.

Levi and Alvin then drive to Ohio to meet with Merlin’s Bishop. When Merlin goes to collect protection money from one of his “customers”, the client will not deal with him. It is said that Merlin is being shunned at the Bishop’s direction and that it can take up to six months to be reinstated into the community. Merlin is angry and he vows to get even. About the same time, Alan Beiler is being released from prison. He borrows a cell phone to call Levi. He tells Levi that he is mad because he spent four months in prison after Levi called the cops on him. He warns Levi to “watch his back.”

The stage is set for the drama to continue in the second season.

A key question being raised among viewers (evidenced by numerous message board posts in response to newspaper articles about the show), bloggers and the media is whether or not this show is portraying actual events or if the show is a total fabrication.

The promotional material on Discovery’s website states that for many years the Amish, “due to a distrust of outside law enforcement,” have turned to this gang in order to maintain peace and order within the Lancaster County Amish community. The site provides the following description.

“This is a side of Amish society that exists under the radar, and the Amish church denies the group’s existence. Amish Mafia provides eyewitness accounts of the incidents, misdeeds and wrongdoings within the Amish community, as well as a rare look at Levi and his team members who work together to maintain harmony. To protect participants and their family members, some identifying information and property has been changed. Some scenes have been reenacted.”

There are many scenes in which members of the gang are shown engaging in violence, using profanity and acting in ways many may think do not show the Amish community in a positive light. In a scene in one episode, the gang responds to the report of an Amish Bishop in a motel room with a prostitute. In another, Esther, now infatuated with Jolin, accompanies him to a gun range and is shown shooting Jolin’s AR-15 rifle. Esther is shown attending a fair with a girlfriend and riding a mechanical bull. She comments that both of these activities are not permitted for Amish women.

The show suggests that these gangs collect money for “fixing” problems, from business owners paying protection money, from gambling, by holding barn fights and hut parties and other illegal activities. Regrettably, the promoters of the show even use the tragedy of the Nickel Mines School incident to promote the show, writing on their website:

“The 2006 School shootings in Lancaster County during which five young Amish girls were killed and five more seriously injured by a non-Amish milk truck driver brought to the nation’s attention the vulnerabilities of the Amish community, and their need for continued protection.”

Archangel Investigations is currently conducting an in-depth investigation into the show, its actors and the events shown to determine if there is any truth at all to either the existence of this organized crime operation or the incidents portrayed. The results of that investigation will be shared with readers in a subsequent issue.

In this issue, we want to address a very delicate and somewhat controversial topic – that being the tradition of drinking by youth. This underage drinking raises a number of concerns, including the risk of criminal charges for the children and their hosts, the severe financial consequences the hosts of the party will face if one of the attendees at party where alcohol is being served is involved in an accident with non-Plain community members and the potential for starting the alcohol abuse ball rolling for our children. And many believe that alcohol is a gateway substance, that can lead to the use and abuse of more serious illegal drugs. The purpose of this article is not to address the social, religious or community issues surrounding this issue. Rather, as business people who on a regular basis evaluate the risks involved in business transactions, it is important to also evaluate the risks you may be unwittingly exposing your business assets to by way of actions in your personal life.

Several times in the first season episodes of the show, scenes are shown of Amish, Mennonite and English young men and women attending “hut” parties. The suggestion given by the show is that these parties occur regularly and are an important source of revenue for the gang member promoters. While we are not, at this point, confirming the existence of parties hosted by Lancaster’s supposed Amish Mafia, it has been a long tradition for Plain community youth to attend parties at which alcohol is served. As businessmen and property owners, it is important for you to have an understanding of the risk to both your liberty and assets that you assume by hosting, or allowing these parties to be hosted, on your property.

Some parents may feel that underage drinking is something akin to a “rite of passage” and that it is better to let their minor children and their friends indulge in the consumption of alcohol on their own property, under adult supervision, rather than for the kids to be out drinking somewhere else. This is a completely understandable sentiment, but unfortunately it is also completely wrong, legally speaking, and may result in very severe criminal and costly financial consequences for you. The fact is that furnishing alcohol to minors is against the law in nearly every circumstance and the police will arrest you if they discover that it has occurred (by the way, in case you were wondering, there is a limited exception that is intended to exclude traditional religious communion service. The aforementioned criminal statute does not apply to any religious service or ceremony which may be conducted in a private home or a place of worship where the amount of wine served does not exceed the amount reasonably, customarily and traditionally required for the ceremony.

While a Plain community parent is very unlikely to report underage drinking parties to the police, it appears that these parties are also frequently attended by non-Plain young men and women. If one of these kids arrive home drunk and the parents find out, it is very likely that the police will be called. If that happens, the police will come calling and it won’t be for a social visit. You may find yourself under arrest even though you were acting with the best of intentions.

Furnishing alcohol to a minor is a crime. The definition of furnishing alcohol to minors can be found in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code at 18 Pa.C.S. Section 6310.1. The Statute is entitled “Selling or Furnishing Liquor or Malt or Brewed Beverages to Minors.” In order to be convicted of furnishing alcohol to minors, the Commonwealth must prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt:

(1) you intentionally or knowingly;

(2) sold, furnished or purchased with the intent to furnish;

(3) any liquor or malt or brewed beverage (i.e. any alcoholic beverage;

(4) to a person who is less than 21 years of age.

If the Commonwealth meets its burden of proof as to all of the elements of this crime, a misdemeanor of the third degree will be on your record and you will be required to pay a mandatory fine of not less than $1000 for a first offense and $2500 for each subsequent offense. A misdemeanor of the third degree carries a maximum sentence of 1 year incarceration. This means the maximum probationary term for a conviction of furnishing alcohol to minors is 1 year. One year probation and a mandatory $1000 fine would be a typical sentence for the first offense of this crime.

The criminal sanctions set forth above, as unpleasant as they are, can almost be considered mild compared to the financial consequences that may result if one of the minors you “hosted” and furnished with alcohol should become intoxicated and cause serious injury to himself or others. Pennsylvania courts hold all persons liable under social host liability laws if they knowingly serve a minor alcohol.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Congini vs. Porterville Value Company, 504 PA. 157, 470 A.2d 515 (1983) held that social hosts may be liable for supplying minors with alcohol. In this case, the Court determined that social hosts serving alcohol to minors to the point of intoxication are negligent per se and can be held liable for injuries resulting from the minor’s intoxication. The Court explained the reason for having a different rule for minors as opposed to adults served alcohol by a social host is that “… our legislature has made a legislative judgment that persons under twenty-one years of age are incompetent to handle alcohol.” Later cases have expanded the ruling to hold that the service of intoxicating liquors to a minor by a social host is negligence” per se”, even if the liquors are not served to the point of intoxication.

Naturally, certain elements must be proven to hold a social host liable for damages caused by the minor drinker. The key factors are knowledge and intent. The Pennsylvania Courts have established the following three part test to determine whether a social host would be subject to liability for injuries arising out of a minor’s intoxication.

1 the defendant must have intended to act in such a way as to furnish, agree to furnish or promote the furnishing of alcohol to a minor;

2 the defendant must have acted in a way which did furnish, or promote the furnishing of alcohol to a minor; and

3 the defendants act must have been a substantial factor in furnishing, agreement to furnish, or promotion of furnishing alcohol to the minor.

What this all means, in layman’s terms, is that if you furnish alcohol to minors you run a great risk of suffering arrest and criminal punishment, including a possible jail sentence and a heavy fine and/or perhaps more significantly, civil liability for the damages caused by the minor to whom you have furnished alcohol. Certainly, if the intoxicated youth causes a mere fender bender with little property damage and no injuries or minor injuries, the financial consequences may not be earthshaking and perhaps little more than a nuisance. Consider, however, the situation where the accident is not so insignificant and where a third party received permanent injuries such as paralysis, requiring long term, life time care of the injured party. Under America’s tort system the injured party and his family are going to seek compensation from every conceivable person and the “social host” will be a prime target. Your financial assets, including personal and real property, along with your business holdings, could very well be targeted by the plaintiff in a lawsuit.

The consequences of a well intentioned desire to allow minors to enjoy a rite of passage on your property, where they will be safe and supervised while imbibing alcoholic beverages, could be cataclysmic. The decision to allow such an event could cost you dearly. Fortunately, this is a rather easy problem to avoid. No matter what the traditions, simply do not furnish alcohol to minors and do not allow them to drink alcohol on your property.