Underage volunteers help Montgomery police catch establishments illegally selling booze

September 21, 2013

Valeria Navarrete remembers the first time she tested whether a restaurant would sell her alcohol illegally. She was an underage volunteer working with the Montgomery County police as part of a program to see whether restaurants and liquor establishments are serving those younger than 21, the minimum age to buy or drink alcohol in Maryland.

That first night, more than six of the 20 restaurants she tested failed the test.

“We don’t call it a sting operation,” said Kathie Durbin, chief of the licensure, regulation and education division of the county’s Department of Liquor Control. “The young people are trained to not trick anyone. We just want to check to see if businesses are carding and not serving to people under 21.”

Volunteers testing for legal sales use their real, state-issued IDs, which have a bright red box around the portrait and block script that reads “Under 21 Alcohol Restricted.” The IDs also note when the person will turn 18 and 21.

Montgomery police officer Bill Morrison, a 20-year veteran of the county’s alcohol enforcement unit, said police use only volunteers younger than 20, so they won’t be 21 if summoned to testify in a related court case. Navarrete made compliance checks from the time she was 17 until last year, when she turned 20.

Waiters and clerks usually are taken aback when someone underage actually presents identification, said Ron Price, compliance manager with the county’s liquor control department.

“A lot of people make the assumption that if the under-21 [customer] showed me their ID, they must be 21,” he said. “Otherwise, why would they show me?”

Businesses must be prepared and alert to prevent serving minors, Price said.

“You’re not serving a Coca-
Cola, for crying out loud,” he said. “You’re serving a beverage that may change someone’s behavior. You should have someone properly trained.”

Of the 400 county businesses tested in the past fiscal year, which ended June 30, 111 sold alcohol to minors, meaning
72 percent passed, according to Emily DeTitta, the Department of Liquor Control’s licensing and outreach manager. In 39 of the 111 failed tests, employees looked at volunteers’ IDs and still completed a sale, DeTitta said.

In fiscal 2012, 102 of the 400 businesses that were checked sold alcohol to minors. Of those failures, servers or clerks asked for ID but still went ahead with the sale 50 times.

“Our compliance rate is not getting better,” Durbin said.

When an establishment makes an illegal sale, the County Department of Liquor Control cites the business, Durbin said, and issues other penalties, such as fines or mandatory training. The county has an Alcohol Law Enforcement Regulatory Training class for restaurant workers and owners.

A restaurant also can be fined, which usually ranges from $1,000 to $20,000, Durbin said.

The server receives a criminal citation and could face fines, community service or additional training.

Vasilis Mediterranean Grill in Gaithersburg has been cited twice in the past 12 years, according to owner Vasilis Hristopoulos.

Hristopoulos said compliance checks most often occur when his restaurant is at its busiest and his employees might be distracted enough not to ask for ID.

“It’s not that they meant to do it,” he said. “It’s that they were very busy and they let their guard down.”

Hristopoulos said that servers who fail the compliance check are pulled from the work schedule and are retrained. If they make the mistake again, they are fired, he said.

“The last thing we want to do is serve a minor,” he said. “As owners, we do our best. We train our employees all day long. But are they going to do their jobs? You have to trust they will.”

Miller’s Rockville Ale House in Rockville had a violation earlier this year.

Tony Pavlick, a general manager at the restaurant, said he has no problem with the county’s checks.

“It’s a good thing they do it. I don’t want underage kids getting served,” he said.

The server who committed the violation was fired.

Like managers at many other restaurants, Pavlick said he has “zero tolerance” for servers selling alcohol to underage customers.

“You do your best to educate the [servers] — and, hopefully, they’re going to do the right thing,” he said.

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