Catching underage drinkers a difficult job

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 23, 2003

Though the Alabama Beverage Control Board has been given $262,000 for fighting underage drinking, some local businesses are still bearing the brunt of the battle themselves.

The state funds were part of federal Department of Justice money channeled through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and helped fund several busts of underage drinkers by ABC agents.

The busts, including five in Pike County, netted the ABC $10,673 in property confiscation and five fake IDs. In all, 63 arrests were made statewide for sale of alcoholic beverages to a minor.

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But on the days that the ABC isn't conducting undercover raids into convenience stores and bars, the struggle to curb underage consumption is a bit less glamorous. Pete Jordan, who owns a liquor store in Troy, said he has spent many days in court prosecuting young buyers.

&uot;If the ABC finds somebody selling to underage kids, they'll prosecute them. But if we find somebody trying to buy, it's up to us, the merchants, to go down to the courthouse and fill out all the paperwork,&uot; he said.

Jordan said he'd like to see less of the ADECA money spent on sting operations and more on helping merchants purchase age verification technology that could be used year round.

&uot;I'd even be willing to match them for half the cost of the machines,&uot; he said.

&uot;Currently, several companies have that technology for sale,&uot; said Capt. Phillip Calvert of the ABC Enforcement Board. &uot;We've been looking at purchasing some of it for our agents.&uot;

However, Calvert said the ABC is not currently using such machines and most are employed by major supermarket chains.

Currently, most merchants are stuck eyeballing the cards they are given and with modern technology at the service of dedicated underage drinkers, the forgeries can be tough to spot. The tiny print on each license makes scrutiny difficult and the added burden of prosecuting each case, Jordan said, makes many merchants say that it's simply not worth the trouble.

&uot;A lot of places will just say no and send them out the door,&uot; he said. &uot;I can't believe I'm the only one prosecuting these cases.&uot;

According to Sgt. Benny Scarbrough of the Troy Police Department, the law allows many options for prosecuting underage drinking.

&uot;You can get them for consuming alcohol, possessing it, attempting to purchase, actually purchasing it or just transporting it,&uot; he said.

Jordan is also frustrated with the system of penalties for enforcing the laws. He said the penalties to the buyer were less severe than the penalties to the clerks who sell the alcohol, creating an unequal system in which the busy clerk who is fooled by a fake ID is punished more harshly than the young person attempting to break the law.

&uot;A teenager trying to buy, if convicted, will usually get a fine of less than $100 and then pay the court costs. A clerk will be fined around $500 and there can be action taken against the owner of the establishment as well. If you have a situation where the penalties to the buyer are not equal to the penalties to the seller, something's wrong,&uot; he said.

Jordan is looking into ways to up the ante in prosecuting underage buyers. He said new homeland security laws have boosted penalties for forging identification and hopes to employ post-Sept. 11 rules to prosecute under felony laws.

&uot;The law now allows us to prosecute people with forged IDs as a Class C felony. Some of these kids think it's a joke to have a fake ID, but maybe they'd change their mind if they knew they were facing a felony conviction,&uot; he said.

&uot;There are people out there who traffic in stolen IDs and then use them with an intent to defraud.&uot;

Calvert said the new homeland security laws could help nail underage drinkers, but he had yet to see any felony charges pressed so far.

&uot;If a business owner wants to, they could do that through their local DA,&uot; he said.

Stephen Stetson can be reached at stephen.stetson