Underage volunteers test restaurants, stores on alcohol sales

Liquor department trial purchases done 400 times a year in county

by St. John Barned-Smith, Staff Writer, and Jacob Bogage, Special to The Gazette

Valeria Navarrete remembers the first time she tested whether a restaurant would sell her alcohol illegally.

She was an underage volunteer working with Montgomery County Police.

“I didn’t know anything or what to choose,” Navarrete said. She asked for a chardonnay, mostly because she knew what the wine looked like and how to pronounce it correctly.

When she started testing restaurants, she was nervous, she said.

That first night, more than a half dozen of the 20 restaurants she tested ended up serving her illegally.

Montgomery County Police work with underage volunteers such as Navarrete to check if restaurants and liquor establishments are selling to drinkers younger than 21, the minimum age to buy or drink alcohol in Maryland.

“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 the block script “under 21 alcohol restricted.” The IDs also say what day the person will turn 18 and 21.

Volunteers can’t lie about their age or refuse to show servers their IDs. They can’t wear excessive makeup or have facial hair, which might make them look older. If a server or bartender refuses to serve them, they must leave immediately, police said.

“That’s the disadvantage we have … but kids going in are going to lie and do whatever they can to get alcohol,” said Montgomery County Police Officer Bill Morrison, a 20-year veteran of the county’s Alcohol Enforcement Unit. Morrison said police only use volunteers younger than 20, so they won’t be 21 if summoned to testify in a court case. Navarette 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 last fiscal year, which just ended, 111 sold alcohol to minors, meaning 72 percent passed, according to Emily DeTitta, the Department of Liquor Control’s licensing and outreach manager. During those 111 failed tests, 39 times employees looked at volunteers’ IDs and still completed a sale, DeTitta said.

In fiscal year 2012, 102 of 400 businesses that were checked sold alcohol to minors, meaning 75 percent passed. Of those 102 failures, 50 times servers or clerks asked for ID, yet went ahead with the sale.

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

When Navarrete started doing checks — sometimes she went to 20 businesses a night — she had a limited knowledge of alcohol, so police officers took her around to liquor stores to show her types of booze she might run into, she said.

Police said the tests are an important part of keeping teens safe and avoiding unnecessary and avoidable fatalities and injuries.

Underage drinkers don’t know how to drink responsibly, which can have deadly consequences, Morrison said.

“It’s a perfect storm leading to disaster — an inexperienced drinker and an inexperienced driver,” he said.

Rachel, of Rockville, began performing alcohol checks at age 15. Now 17, she is studying criminal justice at Towson University. The Gazette is not publishing her last name to protect the integrity of future compliance checks.

Her photo, though, is widely used by the Department of Liquor Control in an educational poster about serving alcohol to minors.

Even after years of compliance checks, Rachel said, she still gets uncomfortable.

“I get nervous when there are other people around … or if I’m the only customer. … It looks funny,” she said.

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

A restaurant also can get a fine, usually of $1,000 to $20,000, Durbin said.

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

Navarrete, who studies psychology at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., used to feel bad when businesses and servers were cited.

“Some people would get in a lot of trouble,” she said.

After a while, her opinions shifted. “These people are selling to minors,” she said. “And that’s how accidents happen.”

If a sale was made, Rachel said, she left the establishment. Then, police officers went inside and explained the result of the check and the potential consequences, she said.

Maryland’s driver’s license system makes it easier for clerks and servers to distinguish underage customers. People younger than 21 receive a vertical license — like a standard, horizontal license, but on its side.

“Most of the time they look at it and seem confused or they don’t know what to look for,” Rachel said. “It’s not every single one, but it’s more than it should be.”

She said she thinks servers might be distracted, or just want to make a sale. Many waiters have served her even after she’s shown her ID, she said.

Now in her third year as a volunteer, Rachel knows the value of what she does.

“I’m around people who are on the other side of what I’m doing because a lot of people my age do drink,” she said, referring to peers buying alcohol illegally. “It’s concerning because there are so many indicators of my age.”

“I’m kind of proud,” Rachel’s mother said in an interview. “She’s on the good side of drinking, working at the compliance checks, instead of going to underage parties and getting citations.”

Rachel has made her share of enemies among clerks and shopkeepers.

“I’ve had people start yelling at me and telling me I’m crazy and I should never come back here,” she said. “I’ve had people think they know what’s going on and tell me, ‘Go tell your inspector friend to stop what they’re doing.’”

“It can be intimidating,” said Price, the county compliance manager. “Some people can get really pissed off about it.”

Still, Rachel isn’t fazed.

“I feel like it’s a service to save people’s lives and prevent underage drinking,” she said.

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