A summons with that beer?

May 19, 2004

MARYLAND'S TAVERN owners and others ceaselessly swatting underage want-to-drinkers out of harm's way should consider a new tactic: suing their youthful butts.

The Amante bar in San Francisco, after paying a $3,000 fine and $7,000 in lawyers' fees for serving an underage customer who used someone else's driver's license as proof of age, turned around and sued the 20-year-old in small claims court. The bar owners won $5,000. Another San Francisco bar owner, whose establishment was shut down for 25 days, sued the two 18-year-olds who got him into trouble; they settled out of court, with the two young women paying the owner $5,000.

While some may look kindly on youthful pranksters trying to have some summer fun, the fact is it is illegal to buy liquor until one is 21 years old. Until that changes, both the seller and the buyer should be charged with breaking the law.

One could well ask who is punished - and who is really responsible.

In Baltimore, for example, where city law makes it a crime for someone underage to buy alcohol (in state code, it's a civil infraction), it's still mostly just an empty threat. Police have usually used undercover cadets as buyers, rounding up wayward servers. But when those relatively few servers and drinkers are caught in the act by the neighborhood beat cop, punishment falls hardest on the gatekeeper. Drinkers may be warned or get a citation of $50 to $500. Mandatory fines for servers reach $1,000, and jail time is possible, as well as a visit to the liquor board, which can levy another fine or close the establishment for days or for good.

But bar owners aren't the ones using the Internet and snazzy computer printers to churn out shiny fake IDs, or using someone else's real one. As one owner said, it's like a burglar trying to break into your house every night, and the night he gets in it's your fault.

With all of Baltimore's problems, turning a blind eye to beer drinkers may seem practical, as stopping drug dealers or killers is a bigger priority. But failing to reinforce the message turns all those well-meaning "don't drink" public service warnings into hot air. It could be time to take another tack.

Rolling through the graduation parties, pre-prom dinners and general carousing, young adults may be testing their boundaries at the local watering hole. Perhaps watering holes should post a new sign: "Under 21? Drink here and we'll sue."

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