Righting a Wrong on Liquor Sales

December 21, 1993

Before Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey takes a bow for reinstituting fines and possible prison sentences for anyone selling alcohol to minors, let's review what has transpired:

Chief Robey says that when he took over as police chief in 1991, he decided to move away from heavy penalties for those who sell to minors, in effect allowing liquor stores and bars to "self-police." He did this at the behest of the Howard County Beverage Association, whose members, he said, appeared to be complying with the law.

But that is only part of the story. Chief Robey sought and got the approval of County Executive Charles I. Ecker to implement the more lenient policy. Mr. Ecker concedes now that he made a mistake in allowing the change. But that simply is not good enough, especially when such a change could have led to personal tragedy.

Mr. Ecker's first priority should have been public safety. Instead, his unflinching penchant for siding with the business community on a host of issues may have landed him in hot water over this matter. The question to ask Mr. Ecker is, "How could you have been so naive?"

The beverage association is, of course, in the business of looking out for its members -- the owners of liquor stores and bars. The fact that they said they were seeking leniency to protect their sales people from being branded with a criminal offense and a steep fine should have been seen as the smoke screen it was. More likely, liquor sellers were concerned that some customers might be carded and that some establishments might be shut down.

It must be said that beverage sellers were largely in compliance with the law prohibiting sales to minors in 1991. Of course, up until that point, they faced tough penalties that were in place at the time. The system was working.

But with the rules relaxed, 14 establishments have been caught selling alcohol to underage police cadets since July alone.

Fortunately, there appears no direct evidence that any minor has died in Howard County recently as the result of an illegal alcohol purchase. Yet there is little comfort in that. Who can help but be concerned when those charged with protecting the public have such faulty judgment about such critical issues?

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