Kids And Booze: Major Problems with Minor Offenders
By Margie Craig Farnsworth
A slice of party life from Monica, a 16-year-old at Scripps Ranch High School:
“The booze is really easy to get. You just pretty much hop from liquor store to liquor store, and sooner or later somebody ends up selling it ... Once me and my friend went into [a liquor store] in Mira Mesa and we asked what they had, and we picked out two 40s [40-ounce bottles of beer] and then we got this bum outside to go buy it. We gave him $3, and he kept the change.
“And then there’s these keg parties all the time. Somebody buys a couple of kegs, and sometimes they, like, hire a deejay. People would just go crazy ... I mean, like they’d have sex and the next day not even know it. They’d do all this weird stuff.
“Not too long ago, I was drunk and passed out and this girl burned me with a lighter three times on my arm. ... It’s a really bad scar, and I’m going to have to have plastic surgery.”
Monica quit drinking after the burn incident. She’s active now in Alcoholics Anonymous, with more than 60 days of sobriety to her credit.
Thirty-five-year-old Kerry Mensior well remembers the last time he was carded. It was just a few months ago at a popular Mission Valley restaurant and watering hole. He was so impressed with the thoroughness shown by the waiter in inspecting the proffered California driver’s license that Mensior wrote the restaurant’s manager to commend the young guy.
Mensior’s interest in this little scene goes well beyond the momentary vanity of believing at least one person out there thinks you look 15 years younger than you are. It’s an optimistic end to a long workday in which Mensior, a detective with the San Diego Police Department’s vice unit, deals with the sorry business of kids and booze.
And a lot of business there is. Experts say about 80 percent of kids under 21 drink some alcohol. Of them, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent say they buy the liquor themselves.
At SDPD, Mensior is something of a one-man band for issues involving the sale of alcohol to minors. He’s the department’s point man for the maze of liquor laws governing retail stores, bars and restaurants—about 2,500 liquor outlets in the city—and he honchos the SDPD’s participation in a variety of programs that educate retailers and kids about the penalties they face when these laws are broken. He works closely with more than a few prevention groups that target teen alcohol use, gives high school and college presentations, authors columns for newsletters published by groups representing bar owners as well as mom-and-pop retailers and—no surprise—keeps an eye out for grants to obtain funding for manpower to assist him.
By all accounts from the people who work with him, Mensior is dedicated to his work, enthusiastic in his approach and creative in his problem solving. He also is under fire as a representative of a law-enforcement system that is viewed in some fairly vocal quarters as not doing a very good job of enforcing.
“What’s with the cops?” asks Ray DiCiccio, executive director of the San Diego County Policy Panel on Youth Access to Alcohol, a blue-ribbon group established in 1994 to combat underage drinking. “They used to enforce a very effective law, and now they’re not using it. They’re capitulating to the alcohol retailers who find it difficult to obey the law.”
DiCiccio is talking about police authority to conduct decoy operations to weed out violators who sell liquor to kids. The program allows a minor, working under the supervision of a law enforcement officer, to try to buy alcohol from an establishment. If asked, the minor must present his or her own identification and answer truthfully about his or her age.
The state Alcohol & Beverage Control rates the decoy operation as very effective. “When first used,” reads a recent ABC recap of the program, “the failure rate of licensees selling to minors was as high as 30 to 40 percent. In some cities where the program was used consistently, the failure rate was reduced to below 10 percent.”
Locally, ABC district administrator Gene Barnes estimates the failure rate at 15 to 20 percent—a good decrease, he says, from about 30 percent a few years ago.
The San Diego Police Department, however, hasn’t conducted a random minor-decoy operation since March 1998. “Random” is a key word; the department has conducted undercover stings in response to specific complaints from, for example, a community group that suspects a store has been selling to minors.
Mensior says SDPD’s policy for random-decoys is on hold. The hiatus follows what all involve describe as an emotional and frustrating example of what happens when public health and safety issues collide with business interests.
A business caught selling alcohol to a minor faces stiff penalties. The clerk or server is cited for a minimum fine of $250, plus community service; the owner is cited for $750 to $3,000. Three violations within three years, and a liquor license is revoked. Why risk this sort of grief to make 50 cents or so on, say, a six-pack of beer?
“It’s either carelessness or outright neglect,” says the ABC’s Barnes. He adds, “Sometimes there’s some entrepreneurship going on,” with a clerk telling a kid a purchase will cost more if he doesn’t have ID. Is the problem all across San Diego? “Absolutely,” Barnes says.
San Diego’s random decoy operations stopped in early 1998 while a database was constructed to ensure that businesses to be visited by the cops were, indeed, selected randomly, says Mensior. Further delays ensued while a controversial bill was pending before the state legislature that would have effectively given a business a “fourth strike” before its license was yanked by the ABC. The change was proposed by state Senator Dede Alpert of Coronado, who came under such intense criticism for the bill that she eventually removed its fourth-strike provision. The bill then passed.
Alpert’s initial bill was pushed by the Food & Beverage Association of San Diego County, a trade group for bars and restaurants, and the San Diego Merchants Association, which represents about 350 independent liquor stores and supermarkets. After the revised bill passed, representatives of those groups met with Jerry Sanders, who was then SDPD’s chief. Later, Sanders met with community activists, including DiCiccio and several members of his panel, to announce the department’s new procedure for conducting random minor-decoy operations. “It was incredible,” DiCiccio scoffs, “just incredible.”
The revised policy includes these provisions:
* Decoy operations would be conducted once a month on 40 businesses chosen at random (previously, SDPD didn’t specify a number, Mensior says, and usually visited about 60 to 120 liquor outlets).
* SDPD would issue an advance press release announcing decoy operations were to be conducted.
* Concurrently, the same announcement would be faxed to the offices of the Food & Beverage Association and the San Diego Merchants Association (the latter known to brag about its efficient phone tree to quickly reach members).
* A visited business that “passed” the operation by not selling to the decoy would receive a letter to that effect from the police department (a requirement contained in the Alpert bill) and, Sanders added, would be removed from the random-selection pool for the remainder of the year.
“What a bunch of happy crap that is,” says a police chief from another jurisdiction who asked anonymity. “That kind of policy is the same as no policy at all.”
Arkan Somo, executive director of the San Diego Merchants Association, which enthusiastically backed Sanders’ policy, stresses that his group has supported a variety of measures to prevent kids from buying booze. Many prevention groups, indeed, applaud his efforts and those of the Food & Beverage Association. “We want to eliminate the problem, not just contain it,” he says.
Somo has concerns, though, about random decoys. “There comes a point where it becomes excessive and it doesn’t distinguish between a good operator and a bad operator,” he says. “No matter how careful [the liquor licensee is], an employee can always make an error. Is it fair that an operator will lose his livelihood because of an employee who makes a mistake?”
“These so-called mistakes are law violations,” counters DiCiccio. “The whole point of a random-decoy is to keep clerks and servers alert and on their toes about this issue.”
Mensior attended the meeting with Sanders and remembers that the community group was upset. “They had some valid concerns,” he says. “They didn’t like the idea of the advance notification, and they were concerned that businesses that passed would be given a free rein for the rest of the year.”
He says a letter-writing campaign ensued after that December meeting, with the activists contacting councilmembers and other officials. “So the program’s on hold again,” Mensior says.
Sanders, contacted shortly before he retired from the police department, was asked to explain the proposed revisions that appear to be skewed to accommodate retailers. He declined comment, noting only that it was “a frustrating process.”
Somo denies putting any pressure on Sanders. “We didn’t call anyone,” he says. “SDMA never solicits any help from the outside.”
DiCiccio and other critics do not accuse Sanders, now executive director of the county’s United Way, of being soft on the issue of underage drinking. Rather, they see the random-decoy flap as just another example of the many contradictions surrounding the whole thorny issue of kids and alcohol.
“We spend millions telling kids not to drink and telling parents not to let their kids drink,” DiCiccio says. “Then we blow it by not giving them the support and resources they need through enforcing the laws we have.”
The kids always ask, ‘What do the cops think they’re doing?’” says Patty Drieslein, who coordinates a zero-tolerance program for senior high school students throughout the county. “They want to know why cops will break up these keg parties and then tell everybody they’ve got five minutes to get out of there or they’ll be cited. The kids just run to their cars and drive away. They’ve been drinking, and then they’re out on the road.”
Yet in her high school presentations, Drieslein tells the kids they will lose their drivers’ licenses for a year if they are cited for driving with any measurable amount of alcohol in their systems. And she tells them they will also lose their licenses if they’re caught trying to buy booze or have it on them or are found in possession of fake IDs. That’s the law.
Mensior says incidents like those described by Drieslein are a huge concern but a sad fact. “The priority is [the police officers’] safety,” he says. “If there’s three or four kids, everyone’s going to get a warrant. If it’s a big party with 150 juveniles, and 50 or so are drinking ... well, the reality is that it’s our job to drain the swamp, and the party is the swamp.”
The Policy Panel on Youth Access to Alcohol recently hired as a consultant Vince Jimno, former Escondido police chief and current chair of the county’s Alcohol & Drug Advisory Board. He agrees there are enough laws on the books and that they are not enforced consistently.
For kids, “the perception that they’ll get caught can be as an important a deterrent as the reality of getting caught,” Jimno says. “We need for them to think there’s no safe place in the county for them to drink, so they’ll stop doing it.”
He’s mindful, though, of the need to “take some of the political sting out of it.” Regarding alcohol violation laws, Jimno says, “Cities flush with money are usually able to take a harder stance on enforcement. Cities needing to get business sometimes are looser in how they apply laws to draw those businesses in.”
He cautions prevention groups to understand the political and city-planning pressures often placed on law enforcement. Jimno says he’ll ask the San Diego County Chiefs & Sheriffs Association to form a joint task force to help tackle problems of youth and alcohol, in much the way agencies have joined to combat such problems as auto theft and narcotics sales. This task force could endorse consistent enforcement tactics and provide what he calls a third-party voice of expertise “to help a police chief so he doesn’t have to stand alone when he’s before his city council.”
A new battle may be looming for advocates on the youth alcohol-prevention front. Last year, Mayor Susan Golding proposed creation of a “downtown entertainment district” to encompass the Gaslamp Quarter and the area around the proposed ballpark. Part of her proposal would allow the City Council to lay down uniform conditions for selling alcohol in that zone, abandoning the current state-controlled ABC function of imposing conditions on licensees. These conditions cover, for example, such business practices as hours of operation and whether a bar or restaurant is allowed to serve liquor outside.
Golding says she wants to “level the playing field” for businesses in the district that sell alcohol. If approved, she says, the plan would be voluntary.
“This is a harebrained idea,” says DiCiccio. “It has the potential to make the Gaslamp something like a Bourbon Street West.” He says the current system—looking at each licensee individually—works. “There may be conditions on some of these licensees because of past problems they’ve had with the ABC,” he says.
Following Golding’s announcement last year, the Policy Panel on Youth Access to Alcohol wrote protest letters to the mayor and councilmembers. Nothing about the plan has been announced since.
Asked recently about the status of the proposal, a spokeswoman for Golding says the city has put the entertainment district on its “priority legislation” program for this year. City lobbyists, she says, are actively seeking a sponsor to carry a bill that would allow its creation.