Harford bar, restaurant servers who serve alcohol to minors could face criminal charges

Posted February 13, 2013 - Be forewarned bartenders and servers: The Harford County Sheriff's Office could issue a criminal citation if you serve an alcoholic beverage to someone younger than the legal drinking age of 21 during a Harford County Liquor Control Board compliance test.

The citation — a charge of selling or furnishing an alcoholic beverage to someone under the age of 21 — comes with a penalty of as much as two years in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to Charlie Robbins, chief inspector for the liquor board.

Deputies, who accompany underage police cadets and students in undercover sting operations, will start filing the citations during the next compliance test, Robins said.

The plan to charge servers criminally is being instituted at the behest of the Harford County Liquor Control Board, whose members say they need to do something to get the attention of alcoholic beverage servers, whom they hope will start taking their responsibilities more seriously.

"I think it's overdue," liquor board vice chairman Michael Thomson said Wednesday. "Many licensees have done everything they can to comply with serving alcohol and serving the community well.

The liquor board periodically conducts compliance tests at licensed bars and restaurants to ensure only to people over the legal drinking age are being served.

During the tests, an underage person under the supervision of a sheriff's deputy walks into a restaurant or store and asks for an alcoholic drink. If proof of age is requested, the underage person provides a real one, showing that he or she is not of legal drinking age. If alcohol is served, the undercover person pays then leaves. The deputy stays in the business and the liquor inspector comes in to speak with a licensee or manager to explain the violation.

The holders of the liquor license can be liable for fines or license suspensions — sometimes both if the establishment has prior violations. The punishments are meted out at the discretion of the liquor board, and the licensees have the option of paying the fine or appearing before the board to contest the violation citation.

Until now, the person serving the drink has not been charged, because the board chose not to, though it's not uncommon for licensees to blame their servers when a violation is cited.

"Serving alcohol is a serious business. It's the only legal recreational drug out there," Robbins said. "We're hoping [servers] will say, 'I'm serving alcohol and I really need to be sure I'm doing the right thing.'"

The results of the last compliance test were "dismal," he said.

The passing rate was during a test of 21 businesses on Dec. 20 was 48 percent. The minor, who was a Bel Air Police Department cadet, was served at 11 of the businesses checked.

The passing rate for all of 2014 was about 73 percent; two other tests in 2014 netted pass rates of 61 percent on Jan. 23 and 58 percent on Aug. 23. Of those that failed in 2014, 90 percent didn't ask for proof of age, Robbins said.

"We're trying something new to get the number back up," Robbins said.

The liquor board had been considering for about a year whether to start charging servers, but once the November election was over, the sheriff and state's attorney agreed to start, he said.

The deputy will issue the citation and the offending server will have to appear in Harford County District Court; servers who are charged will not be taken to jail, Robbins said.

When the violation is witnessed by the minor and the deputy, while the inspector talks to the licensee or manager, the deputy will pull the server aside and write the citation on the spot, Robbins explained.

Citations will only be issued during compliance tests, when the minor and sheriff's deputy witness the violation, making the case easier to prove in court, Robbins said. This protocol was enacted at the request of state's attorney's office.

"This is a teaching tool more than punishment tool," he said.

About 85 percent of the liquor licensees who responded to an email questionnaire regarding charging the servers support the idea, Robbins said.

Some licensees who have appeared before the board in the past because of a violation have asked for some kind of assistance in driving home the point to their employees that they need to card people, Liquor Board Chairwoman Sandi Tunney said.

"Now that it's being implemented, after a couple disappointing results of the past two or three compliance tests, I hope everyone gets the message: it's important to card," Tunney said.

She said the possibility of having to pay a fine and/or possibly serve jail time should be a big deterrent.

"I think they won't be afraid to card. Some of the servers don't bother asking. I think this will make them start," Tunney said.

Licensees have had a few reservations, Robbins said, noting that it might be difficult to attract employees with the threat of a potential penalty hanging over their heads.

"I hope they don't have to write a single citation. I don't think that will happen, but that will be all right with me," Robbins said.

He and the other liquor board inspector, Danielle Markette, offer a free, two-hour class twice a month on how to check for proof of age; no one has attended for the last three months, Robbins said.