Howard County has three words for teen-agers looking to buy alcohol and owners willing to sell it to them: Don't come here.
County police and the Board of License Commissioners have adopted an aggressive approach to reduce the number of cases of liquor sales to underage customers.
"I am optimistic and hopeful that we can make it so tough for underaged people to buy in our county that they either stop doing it altogether or go somewhere else to try their luck," said Detective Martin Johnson, who is also the county's inspector of alcoholic beverages. "That's the goal."
There's action behind those words. Since 1991, two stores have had their liquor licenses revoked and dozens more have been ordered to close their doors for as long as 15 days. The board also can fine a store up to $1,000.
Minors who are arrested and charged are referred to court to complete community service and alcohol awareness programs. The Motor Vehicle Administration also voids their drivers' licenses.
"We want to tell [teen-agers] that they shouldn't" buy alcohol, said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, who, with the other four council members make up the Board of License Commissioners. "We also want to send the message to retailers that they shouldn't do this either. This is an important issue."
But store owners say they're taking the brunt of the blame -- and penalties -- while the youthful offenders are set free.
"We see them snickering in the back of the courtroom, and that's because they know that they're not going to be punished," said J. Bernard McClellan, co-owner of Allview Liquors in Ellicott City, which was fined $1,000 last week for selling alcohol to two teen-agers last year. "The only way we're going to be able to cut down on fake IDs is to make the kids pay for them [with harsher punishment]."
Although the minimum drinking age nationwide is 21, teen-agers have always sought to beat the system -- most use doctored drivers' licenses -- and Maryland's are no exception.
In Baltimore, the number of cases involving alcohol sales to minors rose from 20 in 1996 to 70 in 1997, a 350 percent increase.
In Anne Arundel County, the number of cases grew from five in 1996 to 13 in 1997. Baltimore and Carroll counties experienced slight increases in 1996 and 1997.
And in Howard County, the board reviewed 13 cases in 1996. Although that figure dropped to four last year, the board has already heard four cases in the first two months of this year and seven more are waiting.
Johnson attributes the increase this year to a variety of reasons.
"There are a lot more places out there selling booze, which means more potential people willing to buy," he said. "And there's more carelessness or a lack of experience on the part of a clerk. The effort [to prevent illegal sales to minors] has always been there, but we have found many more violations compared to some other years."
To stop the trend, Johnson peruses daily police reports and investigates anonymous tips of illegal sales. But his most successful -- and controversial -- tactic is the use of undercover police cadets.
An underage cadet is sent into a store to purchase alcohol, usually beer. If challenged, the cadet pretends he has left his license in his car, goes out to retrieve it, returns to the store without proper identification and instead produces money for the beer. Another cadet accompanies the first cadet to verify the transaction.
The best showing, Johnson said, was one night when seven of eight stores refused to sell to a cadet. But the worst result was an outing when all five stores he tested sold to a cadet.
One night last week, Johnson and two cadets tested three stores. Normandy Liquors in Ellicott City and Three Nines Tavern in Jessup refused to sell to the cadet.
But Meadowridge Wine and Spirits in Elkridge failed the test by selling a $6.29 six-pack of Heineken to the cadet, police said. After Johnson conferred with both cadets about the purchase, he talked to store manager Dilvar Singh, who had sold the beer.
The store's case has been referred to the board.
Some owners have criticized the tactic as unfair harassment.
Scott G. Ross, who was ordered to close The Beverage Shop in Lisbon for 13 days in January 1997 after an undercover cadet bought beer there, said the practice is flawed because the cadet's facial hair made him look older.
"If he's got a beard, what's to say that he's not older than 21?" Ross said. "It's fine to have a checks-and-balance system, but I don't think they should go after stores in general."
So far, it seems only liquor stores have been paying the piper.
The board forced Poplar Springs Inn to close in 1991 after a 19-year-old patron seen drinking at the Mount Airy bar died in a car accident that same day.