Bar owners bark about underage drinking "stings"

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January 13, 2003 // UPDATED 4:11 pm - April 27, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Police say more bars card because of compliance checks, but businesspeople say enforcement is excessive and doesn't cut underage drinking

In Minneapolis, more bars and restaurants than ever successfully pass random police checks for serving alcohol to minors. In 1998, 52 percent of on-sale establishments checked IDs and didn't serve those under 21; by 2002, 85 percent passed.

City of Minneapolis licensing and health department officials now want to make police enforcement permanent via a City Council resolution. In 1998, the City Council directed the police to do these "stings." Now, officials want to make it a formal, permanent city policy.

However, some liquor-license holders and city officials say random compliance checks don't reduce underage drinking, but simply make running a business more difficult. In 2002, bar owners faced $44,500 in compliance-check fines -- and over the past five years, the city has made a $96,387 profit on the program, even after deducting the cost of police salaries and the $10-per-hour cost of their underage, undercover drinkers.

"We think there are probably better ways of enforcing the problem (of underage consumption) when it crops up, rather than to be around snooping all the time," said John Rimarcik, owner of many Downtown restaurants, including Caf Havana, The Monte Carlo and The Aster. "It's an uncomfortable way of doing it for the police officer, the person doing the serving and the license holder."

But according to Lt. Phil Hafvenstein, commander of the police license investigation division, compliance checks have proven successful.

"Any time you can take a five-year program and show that the industry has improved itself from a 50-50 chance [of failure] to less than one in five, I'd say it's a pretty successful program," Hafvenstein said. "Since 1998, we have seen such a wonderful decrease in our fail rate that it says to me that regular and consistent compliance checks apparently do raise everybody's level of consciousness about the need to card, identify, question and challenge."

Stings

What licensing investigators call compliance checks, many licensees call "stings."

"The city of Minneapolis, vis--vis Phil Hafvenstein's division, has been doing stings, in effect, for the last five years," said Fine Line Music Caf owner Dario Anselmo. "They go in and do what I would call a sting entrapment."

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) also criticizes compliance checks. "When you send someone in there who's obviously underage to try to lure the bar or restaurant worker into doing something illegal, that's entrapment," Goodman said. "I think it would be fair to say I've never been a fan of the compliance checks."

Hafvenstein said what his department is doing is simply checking to see that liquor license holders follow the law. "I don't know how much fairer or more level we can keep the playing field than to do what we're doing," he said.

Do checks work?

Critics question whether compliance checks actually combat underage drinking, because they don't believe most youth get alcohol through bars or restaurants.

"I doubt stings stop one kid from drinking," said Anselmo. "I bet it's made it a little difficult for underage people to have access, but they still get it."

A 1999 report by the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support showed that youth believe it is easy to get alcohol from "homes, older siblings or friends, convenience and liquor stores that do not card, adults entering liquor stores, and neighborhood bootleggers."

On-sale bars and restaurants were not listed as easy sources of alcohol.

Hafvenstein said he knows that licensed retailers are not the only source of alcohol for underage people, but they are one piece of the puzzle. "Our concern here, working in a regulated environment, is to work with that portion which we're responsible for. That's the licensed beverage retail aspect of it, which is a component of it, but not all of it," he said.

However, Anselmo asked, "Because compliance is up, are kids drinking less? For those people under 21, is their access being reduced by this program? No one seems to want to answer this question. We're just supposed to accept that as the case."

Megan Ellingson, family support specialist with the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, points to the more recent 2001 Minnesota student survey that shows 4 percent of Minneapolis ninth graders bought alcohol in bars or restaurants in the last 30 days. 15.5 percent of ninth graders bought alcohol at stores.

"[Bars and stores] are the two places that the compliance checks affect. As the city, being the regulatory and licensing agency, it's our role to be sure that those licensed businesses are following the law," Ellingson said. "Even though 90 percent of kids aren't going there, it's still a significant number of kids."

Ellingson also pointed out that compliance checks are not the only program targeting youth access to alcohol. She said they also provide parent and youth alcohol education among other awareness programs.

Funding and city resources

Some have criticized the compliance checks as a misuse of city funds and resources.

"I believe (police) should have the right to do these compliance checks, but they should not be doing 300 a year of them. How many they should do, that's something that could be negotiated. I see these stings as a misuse of their resources. They should be concentrating them on the real problems that are out there," Anselmo said.

In response, Hafvenstein said: "I can't think of anything more a part of police responsibility than identification of a criminal act, diminishing that probability of a criminal act, and reducing safety risks."

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) points out that the compliance checks actually make money for the city because they are entirely funded by the fines charged to businesses that have failed the checks.

"Currently, we're covering our costs, and then some, through fines. Fines have basically paid for the whole program," Niziolek said.

The penalty matrix is set up so that the first violation within a two-year period brings a $500 fine. A second violation within that period costs $1,000. A third penalty in two years is a $2,000 fine and a seven-day license suspension. A fourth violation means license revocation.

The program not only pays for itself, it sends money to the city treasury. According to the city's 2001-2002 Youth Access to Alcohol Compliance Report, the city took in $96,387 more than it spent on the program over five years through 2002. In 2002, fines -- $44,500 -- covered the cost of police and their underage undercover helpers, $42,167. The city's "profit" that year -- $19,343 -- mostly came from $17,000 in grants. Although compliance rates are rising and fewer licensees have been fined, Hafvenstein is not worried that, one day, fines may not cover the compliance program's cost.

"The reality of it is, I don't know if we'll ever have 100 percent compliance," he said. "Under our present 17 percent fail rate, we're still generating enough money so that if nothing ever changed, this would be self-supporting for probably the next eight to 10 years."

At the Dec. 30 Minneapolis City Council meeting, the council voted to form a task force that would explore youth access to alcohol compliance checks that police licensing investigators have been performing for the past five years under a 1998 city council directive.

Members of the task force will include the retail liquor industry, police licensing, a city councilmember, The Department of Health and Family Support, the First Precinct, the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association as well as a representative of a Downtown hotel. Although the scope of the task force and the specific members are not yet defined, for the next six months the group will look at whether and to what extent random alcohol compliance checks should continue.

The compliance check process

In conducting compliance checks, Hafvenstein said police use only 18- and 19-year-olds who have a valid Minnesota drivers license or state identification card. "We won't use anybody who looks like they're 25 or 30 years old," he said. "We tell them dress as you normally would dress. Don't put on heavy makeup. Don't do anything special."

Hafvenstein said he finds willing compliance checkers by sending out e-mails and word-of mouth.

The youth who attempt to buy alcohol are instructed to use only their own identification card and not to lie about their ages. "Under no circumstances are they there to try and trick anybody," Hafvenstein said.

While the youth attempts to buy alcohol, they wear what Hafvenstein calls a "body bug" to tape record the encounter.

If the buyer is denied, they exit the bar or store and the officer returns immediately to offer congratulations. "If they fail, they're immediately identified, and the seller is referred to the city attorney for charging under the gross misdemeanor charges that it is," Hafvenstein said.