Liquor stores pass muster, won't sell to minor

Teen working with police refused 10 times out of 10

February 29, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

An 18-year-old high school student had no luck buying beer for the Anne Arundel County police officers he was hanging out with last week.

After the teen paid for a six-pack of Coors Light at one liquor store, the owner yelled, "I'm calling the police. And you're not getting your 20 bucks back either!"

But before the Annapolis liquor store owner could report the boy, police officers waiting in the parking lot explained that the teen was working with them and Anne Arundel liquor board inspectors as part of "Operation J-Save" -- a long-running program that targets liquor store clerks to prevent alcohol sales to minors.

The teen was turned down at all 10 liquor stores where he tried to buy beer without identification, Southern District Sgt. Patrick Riordan said yesterday.

At another liquor store in Annapolis, the manager followed the teen out of the store to write down the license plate of what was an unmarked police cruiser, said Riordan.

"It was good," the sergeant said. "Our goal is to gain compliance, not to charge people. We just want to remind people that prom and graduation seasons are coming up, and that they have a responsibility."

Riordan said the teen, who was recruited by a Southern District officer who teaches drug and alcohol awareness classes at the high schools, was "very young-looking."

John McQueeney, owner of Festival Liquors off Forest Drive, said he had picked up the phone to call police after the teen told him was 21 years old, with a birth date of 1971, which would have made him 28 or 29 years old.

"We don't serve minors," McQueeney said. "The kids know not to come in here. The word gets out at the high schools about which places will sell and which won't. It's more effective than a full-page ad."

Harry Aycock, general manager of Harbour Spirits in the Annapolis Harbour Center, who followed the teen to the parking lot to get his plate number, said store workers usually see an increase in underage patrons trying to buy liquor at the beginning of summer, when college students return home.

"They test out who will sell and who won't," Aycock said. "This time of year, we'll see a few high school kids, but not too many."

Neither Aycock nor McQueeney, who is a former county liquor board inspector, thought the undercover operation aimed at the stores was the most effective way of preventing underage drinking and illegal liquor sales.

"I appreciate that the officers and inspectors are out there," said Aycock. "But I'd also like to see them start that program where they pose as store clerks and arrest the kids trying to buy.

"The kids don't see the consequences of trying to buy illegally," he said. "The clerks and owners are always held accountable. It's our license and our money if we don't obey the law."

Liquor store owners who sell to minors can be fined $1,000 and can lose their liquor licenses.

Underage patrons can also be fined and could be jailed 30 days and lose their driver's licenses. But liquor store owners complain that underage patrons are seldom punished.

Richard C. Bittner, chairman of the liquor board, acknowledged that although the 12 inspectors have the right to issue citations to underage patrons, they rarely do.

"Because they're part-time and they don't have law enforcement training, they don't issue citations to teen-agers. They work with the Police Department for that reason," Bittner said.

However, he said, inspectors are training to pose as liquor store clerks to catch minors trying to buy alcohol. Because many underage patrons use fake IDs that have their real names -- and often their correct addresses -- Bittner said it was possible for the inspectors to take the IDs and issue citations through the mail rather than confront the underage patron at the scene.

"It's safer that way," Bittner said.

The "Operation J-Save" initiative will continue through the spring, officials said.

In addition to targeting liquor stores, police officers regularly patrol proms, graduations and known party spots for underage drinking, Riordan said.

The liquor board and police also post notices in high schools warning teens about the consequences of underage drinking.

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