A county check of 404 restaurants turned up 113 where servers sold alcohol to minors, either after not checking for ID or seeing an under-21 ID and serving alcohol anyway.
That means a compliance rate of 72 percent for the annual check, a joint program of the county’s Department of Liquor Control and Police Department. The program, which started about six years ago, typically results in a compliance rate around 80 percent, said Liquor Control Chief of Licensure, Regulation and Education Kathie Durbin.
“It’s OK, but not good enough,” Durbin said. “It’s usually a bad judgement call on the person who’s selling or serving. It’s not because it’s a bad business.”
Non-compliance during the check does carry some significant penalties. The first offense means a $1,000 fine for the business and a mandatory review hearing before the county’s Board of License Commissioners.
Liquor Control and Police train and send out volunteers, usually high school students, to try to buy alcohol with some very specific instructions: no facial hair, provocative clothing or sunglasses. The only things the volunteers are allowed to carry are a cell phone, buy money provided by Liquor Control and a valid ID.
Durbin said she can understand how a busy night at a restaurant might lead to a server under pressure who forgets or simply doesn’t check for ID. Those who check for ID, see the clearly underage ID and date of birth, yet still serve the minor alcohol are harder to figure, but still common.
“It’s really the whole county that’s having the same issue. It’s one of those kind of things you have to keep on the radar. It affects the whole community when you have a business that sells alcohol to people under 21. It has a rippling effect,” Durbin said.
Liquor Control provides ID check education classes, calendars and photos of valid IDs for comparison during checks. Durbin said the still significant non-compliance rate shows how important continuing education of the process is.
The county will try to hit about 400 of the 1,000 alcohol-selling businesses in Montgomery during the compliance check each year, meaning each business should be checked once about every two years.
“We tell them we’re coming,” Durbin said. “At the Board when they get their licenses, the commissioners tell them we will check. We have a very good program that others model their compliance checks on.”
The 2014 compliance check has already begun. Meanwhile, Liquor Control has partnered with the nonprofit Responsible Retailing Forum to conduct a “mystery shopper” program in Bethesda.
The program uses volunteers who are all over the age of 21, but “young enough that they should trigger an ID check by the clerk or server.” A green card is given to the server or clerk if that person correctly checks an ID. There are no legal penalties involved in not checking for ID.
But Durbin says she’s noticed servers stepping up to check and identify the mystery shoppers — there’s a $100 reward involved.