My Turn: Overzealous enforcement at liquor establishments

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2005

Last week bartenders and other beverage alcohol servers were targeted for a "compliance check," an elaborate sting involving underage drinkers and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Of the workers who fell prey to the sting last week, I am surprised to hear how little sympathy they got even from fellow beverage alcohol-serving staff. Many of the victims lost their jobs and now face criminal charges. These unfortunates may face as much as a year in prison, and up to $10,000 in fines. You might say to yourself, "serves them right, next time they'll know better," but for people like the fellow who had bartended for the last five years at a local tavern, there is no "next time." A moment's carelessness cost him much more than his job. Last week he was fired, and after prosecutors decide his fate, he may not even be a free citizen. If you think that's OK, imagine going to work where a single mistake could cost you a year in prison. Now think about your own job, and how many times in the last week you've made a very big mistake. Did you go to jail for it?

The most important thing to remember in this case is that we are all human, bound by the possibility of error. The idea of sending a teenager into a bar with the predatory intention of entrapping beverage alcohol-serving staff members for criminal convictions is unethical, and only questionably legal. The other problem with using teenagers for the stings relates to the teenagers themselves. What is going to happen to these three kids after the sting is over? Now that they've had professional training to sneak into liquor stores and bars, who is to say that they aren't going to use that skill to buy liquor for their friends later? If the beverage alcohol industry is corrupting teenagers by allowing them to drink on premises, then the promoters of these stings are corrupting the youth even more - by encouraging them to try.

Matt Felix, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau, stated, "You can't have statutes to regulate a dangerous product and not have enforcement." I couldn't agree with this more. The compliance checks are a good idea, but their faults are in their execution. For instance, we know the punishment for those who failed the check, but what about the ones who passed? What do they get for risking a year of their lives in prison? Whenever an ordinary youth enters a bar, he or she is subject to up to $1,000 in civil penalties if caught. That means that if anyone under the age of 21 enters a bar or attempts to buy liquor, that person is liable for up to $1,000 in damages. Somehow the stings are exempt. If this thing is carried out to its legal terminus, the beverage alcohol servers should be able to sue the youth who attempted to sting them, exactly as the law states. And even then, the gain would not offset even a 10th of the risk involved in being subjected to such a sting.

We all want to put an end to underage drinking. If it is the ultimate goal of the ABC board to find a permanent solution to this problem, then it will be necessary for that entity to negotiate a middle-ground with beverage alcohol-serving businesses. A positive alternative to the present compliance checks could be the following: Set up a compliance check that doesn't end up in the courts nor even involve anything illegal. First, hire a 21-year-old civilian. Have him or her enter a licensed premises. Since beverage alcohol-serving staff are supposed to card anyone who looks under 30, the businesses who successfully passed could receive some sort of honorable mention. In this case, business owners will feel encouraged by the ABC board to improve the vigilance of their staff in a way that is positive and redeeming.

• Juneau resident Joshua Adams is the general manager of the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.

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