2008-01-15 / Front Page

Buying alcohol for minors? The TABC is watching...

"You have the right to refuse to sell alcohol to anyone, but you have the responsibility not to sell it to anyone under 21. " -- Michael Deans Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agent
By LISA CARNLEY Staff Writer

When Michael Deans is in town, word spreads quickly. After a visit to one business that sells alcohol, the other establishments soon are aware of Deans' presence.

But that's the way he likes it.

Deans, an agent for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said he would rather discourage clerks from selling alcohol to minors by them knowing he is watching.

"I'm not here to make arrests; I'm here to stop the sale of alcohol to minors," he said.

And through a series of regular sting operations, Deans knows which establishments typically live up to the law and which bear a closer watch.

To catch a store selling alcohol to youths, Deans sends teens under the legal drinking age into businesses to attempt to purchase alcohol. But he is not trying to fool anyone.

"These kids are young -- and they look their age. They are not 21," he said. "They are dressed appropriately for their age. They have legal driver's licenses or identification cards, and clearly they are not old enough to buy alcohol.

"They also are instructed not to lie about their age and to show proof of identification when asked. They also cannot coerce the clerk in any way and should answer truthfully when asked a question," said Deans.

"Clerks know we are doing this, and we don't make a big secret out of it."

The TABC agent, who has six counties under his jurisdiction including Lampasas, said his focus is on public safety -- for adults as well as kids.

"These stings have been extremely effective," Deans said, adding he was pleasantly surprised the latest sting Saturday night yielded no local offenses of the 11 businesses patronized.

Typically, he said, one or two businesses out of every 15 are caught selling alcohol to minors, and many times the percentage is higher than that.

"I don't think they do it on purpose, but they just aren't paying attention, or they have long lines and feel rushed." Regardless, the practice is illegal, Deans said. And those who break the law will pay.

"It is important that people realize that alcohol in the wrong hands is very dangerous." He named a recent high-profile case where a local youth stood trial for intoxication manslaughter after the death of another teen.

It was determined, Deans said, that a 17-year-old purchased two cases of beer from a local convenience store, and after his successful buy he passed the alcohol off to the teen who eventually drove the truck in which one of the passengers was killed.

"We are trying to avoid tragedies like this," said the TABC agent.

That clerk, who faces a jury trial this month, was charged with making alcohol available to a minor. He was arrested and taken to the local jail. He was released after posting bond.

Deans said the clerk faces up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. "It is likely this clerk will face some jail time due to the nature of the offense," said the agent.

Adults also can be held liable for damages caused by an intoxicated minor younger than 18 if the adult knowingly provided the alcohol.

And businesses that employ clerks who sell to minors face stiff fines and suspension or cancellation of alcohol sales permits.

The 17-year-old who first purchased the beer also was arrested, said Deans.

"This is what we are trying to prevent. It is illegal to sell alcohol to minors, and you will get caught and go to jail for it.

"It starts with the clerk selling the alcohol; he is ultimately responsible. He is the adult who had the power to stop things from going any further, but it dominoed into something that ended up affecting so many lives."

The TABC agent said he hopes the arrest will send a message that people better think before selling alcohol to minors. "Everyone needs to realize we are actively watching and ready to catch those who do not pay attention to the law. We'll put you in jail. It's a violation not only of the law, but of our community. These people have the ability to stop selling to minors."

Deans said he cannot stress enough the importance of checking identification closely.

"We are here to help keep the good businesses in business and get the bad businesses out of business. Alcohol is legal, and as long as the rules are followed, it is OK. But we will continue to focus on those who don't do it right, those businesses where we see violations and continued problems."

Lampasas Assistant Chief of Police Sammy Bailey said the alcoholrelated arrest rate of youths ages 15 to 20 is high in the community. And in the past where much of the activity has involved minors in possession of alcohol, the trend is moving more toward minor-in-possession and minor-consuming cases.

In 2007, Ms. Bailey said 140 alcohol related arrests were made for the 15 to 20 age group, to include minor in possession, minor consuming and driving while intoxicated charges.

Deans also warned that there is a no-tolerance policy for youths operating a vehicle with any detectable amount of alcohol in their system. "If we even smell it on them, they are going to get arrested."

The TABC agent and Ms. Bailey said incidents of "pasture parties" have declined over the past several years. "We have worked hard over the years to keep a watch on that sort of activity," said Ms. Bailey. "More often, we catch kids with alcohol in their vehicles or at small neighborhood parties, and we are working to stop that, too."

She encouraged anyone with knowledge of underage drinking or alcohol sales to minors to phone the Police Department, or the TABC toll-free at (888) THETABC.

"You have the right to refuse to sell alcohol to anyone, but you have the responsibility not to sell it to anyone under 21," the TABC agent said.

Deans added that he feels good when he catches those who purchase or sell alcohol to minors. "I have no trouble sleeping at night after I put them in jail. By doing that, they didn't get hurt, and they didn't hurt anyone else."

Said the agent: "I will continue to come to Lampasas, and watch for illegal alcohol sales and underage drinking. I can't be everywhere, but you never know where I'm going to be."

Underage Drinking Laws from the TABC

• Minors who purchase, attempt to purchase, possess or consume alcoholic beverages, as well as minors who are intoxicated in public or misrepresent their age to obtain alcoholic beverages, face the following consequences:

-- Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $500. -- Alcohol awareness class. -- 8 to 40 hours community service.

-- 30 to 180 days loss or denial of driver's license.

• Adults and minors who give alcohol to a minor also face a stiff penalty:

-- Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $4,000. -- Confinement in jail for up to a year.

-- Driver's license suspension for 180 days upon conviction.

• Sale of alcohol to a minor is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $4,000; confinement, up to a year in jail; or both.

• Zero tolerance law:

-- While it is illegal for adults over 21 to drive while intoxicated, it is illegal for a minor to drive while having any detectable amount of alcohol in their system. A wide range of penalties can be assessed, from fines to alcohol awareness class, community service and driver's license suspension.

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