Some of the issues liquor agents face are age-old. Teenagers still try to hold drinking parties in the woods or at their own homes when their parents are away. Some states are still even dealing with moonshine and bootleggers. (In some southern states, liquor agents routinely find and destroy 20 or more stills every year.)
The Alabama ABC Board makes sure both store employees and the public understand the legalities of beverage alcohol and tobacco sales and purchases.
But other issues are as new as the latest computer technologies. Some law-enforcement experts estimate that at least 50% of all high school students and underage college students carry fake IDs. And these are not the crudely altered driver’s licenses of yesteryear. These are completely fake documents, made with the latest graphics software, color printers and laminating equipment.
“We’ve arrested kids producing fake IDs in their dorm rooms that make real driver’s licenses look awful,” said David Wilson, director of enforcement for the Mississippi Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Liquor law enforcement agencies are constantly looking not only to meet new challenges, such as these increasingly sophisticated fake IDs, but to educate the public and prevent alcohol-related crimes and problems from happening at all.
It can be a thankless task. For example, the Investigative Unit of the Ohio Department of Public Safety (the entity in charge of enforcing that state’s liquor laws) caused an outcry recently when it suspended the liquor licenses held by the five bars and restaurants at the Port Columbus International Airport. Four of the five had sold beer to minor operatives during compliance checks.
“There was a big hue and cry,” said Ed Duvall, Jr., deputy director of the Investigative Unit. “Of course, there would have been a big hue and cry if drunken teenagers had driven their car off the top of the airport parking garage, too.”
Duvall, with decades of law enforcement experience, including as a homicide detective and as the head of Akron’s child-abuse unit, has seen the most horrific kinds of crime. Enforcing the liquor laws, although often viewed as less-than-serious by people remembering their own youthful drinking, “is a very, very worthwhile thing to do,” he declared.
“You’re working to prevent those tragedies you hear about every prom or party season: the three high school seniors dying in a car wreck, the teenager who drowns, the college student who falls off the balcony of his dorm and dies,” he said.
Aidan Moore, chief of enforcement for the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission, pointed out that enforcing the liquor laws prevents other crimes. “It is one of the most proactive things you can do,” he said. “It is prevention at its best.”
HIGH-TECH EQUALS HIGHLY EFFECTIVE
When asked to describe his bureau’s current computer system, one state’s head of liquor enforcement joked he had “the most cutting-edge technology of the 1980s.”
That’s been changing, however.
In West Virginia, Tom Keeley, commissioner of the Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, has outfitted all his enforcement agents with handheld scanners, complete with infrared printers small enough to hang off their belts.
The scanners can currently be used to read the information encrypted on the driver’s licenses of 43 states. An automated voice announces out loud whether that person is under 18, under 21 or of age.
The scanners can also be used to obtain information about a licensee. West Virginia liquor licenses, which, by law, must be on display in the licensed establishment, now come with barcodes across the bottom. These bar codes can be read by the new scanners to access information about the licensee.
“The agent scans the license, then does the inspection, entering information on a checklist shown on the scanner’s screen,” explained Keeley. “Then, just as someone signs for a package from UPS, both the licensee and the agent sign off on the inspection.” Later that night, the agent can download the results of the inspection to headquarters via phone line.
“What used to take three weeks to do by paper,” said Keeley, “is now done within a day — and with no postage or data-entry work.” Alcohol beverage control agencies from several states have already expressed interest in West Virginia’s new technology.
The enforcement division of the Mississippi ABC is currently in the final testing of its own new computer system. “When you have your data on paper, you can’t do anything with it without a huge amount of effort,” pointed out Enforcement Director Wilson. “This [new computer system] is going to be a real boon for us, giving us the ability to use data that exists to manage our resources.”
The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is also testing a new computer system. As in Mississippi, this new computer system will allow the department’s enforcement bureau to better analyze and enter its data. “The biggest benefit will be the ability to search records in any number of different ways,” said Chris Curtis, director of the Virginia ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement.
This sign from the Vermont Department of Liquor Control (above) is quite specific about penalties for breaking the law; the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board supplies lots of materials, such as this Training Packet (below), to emphasize its enforcement efforts.
Liquor agents aren’t the only ones who are technologically advanced. It is increasingly common for liquor agents and others in law enforcement to uncover fake-ID operations. Often, it is a one-person enterprise, but that one person can make and sell hundreds of fake IDs. In the most recent case uncovered by enforcement agents of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, a college student has been charged with making driver’s licenses from several states on his home computer and selling them for $65 to $100 a pop.
The investigation began when a minor in another part of the state, found to be carrying a fake ID, was questioned by LCB investigators. According to articles in the Spokesman Review, the minor drew them a map to the college student’s apartment. A six-month investigation followed, during which an undercover officer from the Spokane police department asked to buy an ID from the college student. When his apartment was raided, the student’s computer screen showed an image of a Maine driver’s license with the undercover officer’s picture already in place. Spokane police are seeking 45 felony charges against the student, 15 related to the fake IDs and the rest to evidence of other possible crimes found on his computer.
The Vermont Department of Liquor Control is testing an innovative tool to combat fake IDs. On Friday and Saturday nights, on- and off-premise establishments selling alcohol and tobacco can call a phone number to check on a suspicious ID. Using the same database police officers use to check driver’s licenses, car registrations and the like, the dispatcher on the other end of the phone can confirm whether an ID from any state in the country actually exists. Currently, the number (1-866-ITS-FAKE) gets 20 to 30 phone calls a month, 7% to 8% of which uncover false IDs. According to William Goggins, director of enforcement, the Vermont LCB is looking to expand the program so the number is available at other times of day.
Because minors frequently buy fake IDs or the templates to make them from websites, and those sites are more often than not located outside their states, it has been difficult for state law enforcement agencies to pursue investigations. However, the federal government has been active in cracking down on fake IDs for the last several years. A federal law that went into effect in March of 2000 made it illegal for U.S.-based websites to sell driver’s license templates, for example. According to a report in USA Today, that law cut the number of such sites from more than 10,000 to fewer than 2,000.
In 2001, federal authorities opened their own fake fake-ID website and received 430 applications for fake IDs in 15 months. Most were from minors, although a few were from convicted felons.
And in December, federal prosecutors charged eight men with conspiracy for operating websites that sold fake driver’s licenses. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, mail to this operation was first sent to other countries but then redirected to mail drops in California. As part of the scheme, these men even allegedly ran a website that billed itself as an independent reviewer of the fake ID wares available on the web. That site, of course, gave the men’s products the highest scores.
“It is absolutely an epidemic,” said New Hampshire’s Moore, “anyone, anywhere can get or can make a fake ID. And even though many states have stepped up the security measures on their driver’s licenses — holograms, ghost images and the like — with a little searching, you find you can buy those images on the internet. You’re dealing with young people who’ve grown up with all this technology.”
Indeed, Moore, like many in liquor enforcement, finds that young people are much more sophisticated than they had been in the past. “I was doing a seminar with young people in Florida,” said Moore. “I asked how many had $10 in their pocket, then $20, then $100. There were still 15 hands up in the air at $100. Half of them had credit cards, two-thirds had cell phones, most had cars. When I was young, I was lucky if I got to use Mom’s car and if I had $5 or $6 in my pocket. The availability of cash and of transportation has created a kind of go-go mentality with kids.”
West Virginia has employed these hand-held scanners, with infrared printers, for enforcement agents. The scanners can read encrypted information on driver’s licenses from 43 states, and also obtain information about a licensee.
On the other hand, some things never change. Though sophisticated fake IDs are a problem, the most common kind of “fake” ID is a minor trying to pass someone else’s driver’s license — such as a sibling’s — as his or her own. And kids still try to hold parties — and are still overheard by teachers and parents. Indeed, law enforcement officers say it is not uncommon for them to find out about an underage party because the minors holding it have printed flyers –sometimes complete with maps — and handed them out at school.
But law enforcement agencies continue to perfect their techniques of handling such things. In New Hampshire, the enforcement agents of the liquor commission, who teach law enforcement personnel of all types a unit on the liquor law at the state’s police academy, devote one of their courses to a technique known as “controlled dispersal.”
“Years ago, when police discovered a party — in a sandpit or a house party — they would surround the place and make a flashy entry,” explained Moore. “The kids would try to escape, but they’d have been drinking and their most likely avenue of escape was by car. We began to wonder if we could be contributing to the problem we are trying to solve.”
The controlled-dispersal class tries to give police, even those from very small departments, ideas about how to better handle breaking up an underage party. “Ultimately, you have to stop the party, but you also have to get people safely home. Those are the two goals,” said Moore.
Possible techniques include calling in extra law enforcement people, if possible, or running license checks on the cars illegally parked in front of a house party in order to call the parents to come down. If a sports team is having the party, a call to the team’s coach might prove helpful, said Moore, who advised local law enforcement to keep a list of such community contacts and their phone numbers.
In Vermont, the Department of Liquor Control has organized START (for Stop Teen Alcohol Risk Teams) with a range of other law enforcement agencies, including police, but also game wardens and motor vehicle inspectors. “In very rural areas, there might be a party at a gravel pit with five kegs and 200 people, but there are only two cops on duty,” explained William Goggins, director of enforcement. “With just two guys, a big group of kids can get pretty rowdy, and that’s a dangerous situation.”
Sometimes, START teams go out on proactive patrols, such as during Prom Nights or to respond to information about a party. But an officer on patrol who comes across a party can also activate START. “We’ll call people out of bed,” said Goggins.
Another age-old problem liquor agents face is adults furnishing minors with alcohol. Aidan Moore of New Hampshire cited a survey in his state in which minors reported that the majority of the alcohol they obtained — 65% to 75% — came from adults buying it for them.
Vermont’s Goggins speculated that it is success in other areas that has made this a more common problem. “As it has become more difficult for minors to buy alcohol on their own, they are leaning on other sources, such as an older brother or sister or a stranger tapped on the shoulder.” (“Shoulder tapping” is the term used to describe minors asking someone, often a stranger right outside the store, to buy alcohol or tobacco for them.)
Many liquor enforcement agents note with exasperation that they still come across parents who will provide alcohol for their children and their friends. Often, these parents believe that, by holding the party in their home, where they can supervise, they are providing minors with a safe situation, never mind that, in many states, this is illegal.
“It’s the old mindset,” said Goggins. “‘Kids are going to drink; it’s a rite of passage.’ But kids who have been drinking don’t have to be in a car to get killed. They can give themselves alcohol poisoning. There can be sexual assaults.” Some states, such as Vermont, have recently toughened their laws about furnishing alcohol to a minor.
In many control states, enforcement agents are fully trained, sworn officers, like these agents — (left to right) Joseph L. Cannon, Tricia L. Weatherholtz, Cathy M. Klepper and Allen T. Slonaker — from the Virginia ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, who are expected to enforce any law in the Commonwealth.
And at least two control states, Alabama and Virginia, are looking into specialized compliance checks, first pioneered by the State of California, designed to catch “shoulder tapping.” In these checks, minor operatives ask random people outside stores to buy alcohol for them. The minors clearly and repeatedly state their age and the fact that they are too young to buy alcohol legally.
The Virginia ABC has also embarked on an educational campaign, called “Operation Sticker Shock,” to raise public awareness about the laws prohibiting providing alcohol to those under 21. The stickers, available in English and Spanish, are placed on beverage alcohol products at participating retailers. The stickers look like stop signs and explain the law.
In many states, liquor agents are fully trained, sworn police officers. They carry guns and handcuffs. They have full arrest powers. “They are authorized — and expected — to enforce any law in the commonwealth,” said Curtis, the director of the Virginia ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, of his bureau’s 150 sworn agents.
And these agents do find themselves handling other crimes, often ones they witness as they go about their duties. Recently, Vermont liquor agents were involved in a kidnapping case that occurred in a bar, for example. Liquor agents’ involvement in drug and gambling cases is so common that the annual academy run by the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association (www.nllea.com) holds classes on those subjects.
Liquor agents work very closely with other law enforcement agencies. And they work with community groups, especially on education issues. In fact, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement won 2002’s “Innovative Law Enforcement Program of the Year” award from the NLLEA precisely because of the way enforcement and education efforts were combined into a potent whole.
“When other law enforcement people come into our bureau,” said New Hampshire’s Aidan, “they often say, ‘I didn’t know you did all this.'”
And, as liquor enforcement agencies continue to innovate, they not only do it all, they strive to do it better.