No Longer a Minor Matter
Using Underage Buyers, City Turns Up Heat on Illegal Liquor Sales to Teens
By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page DZ08
Standing in the checkout line in Aisle 2 at a brightly lit Safeway on Rhode Island Avenue NE, an 18-year-old woman in a black top and bluejeans is waiting to buy alcohol.
Minutes before, she'd been rebuffed by a mom-and-pop convenience store a couple of blocks away. The cashier said she was too young. But this time is different.
The young woman plops down a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers on the counter and hands the 27-year-old clerk a $20 bill. The clerk asks for no identification and simply returns the change.
The teenager briskly exits the store, with an undercover police officer and alcoholic beverage investigator following close behind. Minutes later, the store is busted.
"I was like, 'Oh, no, why did she sell?' " the teenager said outside the store. "She should know better."
The teenager is part of an undercover operation involving the D.C. police and the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), the city agency that is aggressively clamping down on businesses that peddle liquor to minors.
Launched in July 2003, the program has targeted more than 680 bars and liquor, drug and grocery stores in the District and cited 166 of them for selling to minors -- all volunteers from the National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking.
"I think it's extremely effective," said Maria M. Delaney, director of ABRA. But she makes a distinction between effective and successful. "To me, a successful program is to have merchants not selling to kids at all."
Delaney said inroads have been made. About 24 percent of all stores visited have sold alcohol to minors since the program began; in January, that figure was 45 percent. Delaney attributes the drop to the undercover crackdown and an educational program for merchants.
At the Safeway last Thursday, as is typical, a D.C. police officer, an ABRA investigator and Delaney returned to the store minutes after the purchase. They summoned the store's alcoholic beverage supervisor and the cashier who sold the liquor. The store employees both later declined to be interviewed.
Craig Muckle, a Safeway spokesman, said, "We're very disappointed that we did not pass the sting operation. We have a very diligent program to get everyone to comply. We understand selling alcoholic beverages is a responsibility. We take it very seriously."
The police officer wrote a citation for a misdemeanor court appearance for the cashier, who at first seemed stunned. The ABRA investigator filled out paperwork for administrative action against the store.
The administrative action involves a "notification" that the store has sold liquor to a minor and is followed up by a letter. The letter typically gives first-time offenders the opportunity to settle for a $1,000 fine. For subsequent violations, the establishment must appear at a hearing before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which can level fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000. The ABC board's decisions can be appealed to D.C. Superior Court. So far, no business has appealed the ABC rulings, according to Delaney.
If an establishment has four violations in a four-year period, its liquor license is automatically revoked. To add to the penalties, police in February started issuing criminal citations at the same time that ABRA took action. The misdemeanor citations can result in criminal fines of up to $1,000 and one year in jail, though no one has served any time, police say.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company