Alcohol sale to minor violations: “Fu*k you, pay me.”

In Hospitality by Richard Bianco

It simply does not matter how proactive you have been in your liquor store or bar. If a minor is served, you are liable. It is what lawyers call “strict liability.” That means, all the Government has to prove is that a person under the age of 21 was served alcohol in your establishment. It doesn’t matter how or why. The fact that the service occurred is enough to result in a sale to minor violation.

There is a scene in the Scorsese classic Goodfellas that aptly describes a “strict liability” offense. You might remember the phrase “Fuck you…pay me.” In DC liquor sale to minor cases, the Board Is Henry Hill and you are the schmuck owner of the Bamboo Lounge.

1. “All of your employees took mandatory training? Fuck you, pay me.”
2. “Your stupid bartender forgets to ask for i.d.? Fuck you, pay me.”
3. “The kid looked 35? Fuck you, pay me”
4. “You fired the doorman who let the kid in? Fuck you pay me.”

The “pay me” aspect of the aforementioned quote is steep and escalates quickly. A first offense is a mandatory fine of $2000 – $3000 and a 5-day suspension. A second offense within four (4) years will cost you $3-5 grand, with a 10-day suspension. Third offense: $5-10k, 15 days; 4th offense, you are looking at a possible revocation. That’s rough.

Most sale to minor violations are “double”

Here is more bad news. There are two (2) separate types of sale to minor violations that nearly always occur together. So usually you get hit with double fines and suspensions.

Specifically, it is a violation to sell, deliver or otherwise dispense alcohol to someone under the age of 21. (D.C. Code 25-781(c)<). Also, it is a separate violation if you fail to take reasonable steps to ascertain a customer’s age. (D.C. Code 25-783).

So, consider this scenario, ABRA sends a 20-year-old undercover patron into your bar or liquor store for a “sting operation.” (They do this constantly). Your cashier or bartender is tired, not paying attention, doesn’t care, or just isn’t so bright. He or she doesn’t ask for ID and sells alcohol to the undercover. That is two (2) violations. One for the sale and one for failure to card. You are on the hook for $4000-6000 and 10 days of suspension! For a first offense! Ouch.

There is some relief from these draconian sanctions. First, licensees are entitled to one (1) written warning for each of the two (2) offenses. So, you will get a chance to get your house in order if your i.d. checking procedure is lax. The exception to the written warning requirement is if the offense is deemed “egregious.” An egregious offense would be one in which the server asks for identification, the patron provides none and then serves the underage patron anyway.

Also, the Law expressly allows for the Board to “stay” a number of the mandatory suspension days for a year. That means if you keep your nose clean, you don’t actually serve the “stayed” suspension days, capeesh?

5 ways to prevent sale to minor violations

So, what can you do to avoid these crushing fines and penalties? Stop serving minors, duh. Here are some strategies to keep you in the Board’s good graces:

1. Mandatory staff training for all servers;
2. Restrict the age of servers to people over the age of 21;
3. Require servers to check i.d.’s of all patrons;
4. Use the free i.d. authentication resources available (i.e. the ID Book) and invest in additional i.d. checking technology for doormen and servers. (i.e. black lights, magnifiers, and barcode scanners for high volume establishments);
5. Have a zero tolerance policy for employees who do not follow the rules.

Underage patrons are going to try and get alcohol. It has been a fact of the business for as long as there has been a minimum drinking age. They will lie, deceive, sneak in and present false documentation. Regardless, the law clearly puts the onus on you to stop them. The only way you can protect your business is to be consistent and vigilant. Half the battle is developing a reputation as an establishment that does not serve underage patrons. The places that have the most trouble are the known “college bars” that cater to the undergraduate crowd.

If you have questions about the underage service rules, or if you have received a violation, contact me, or schedule an appointment for a free case evaluation at a time that is convenient for you.