By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — Laramie should significantly increase the penalties leveled to businesses that sell alcohol to minors, University of Wyoming Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Blackburn suggested Monday.
His proposal came at the city’s monthly meeting — currently held every two weeks — of the Ad Hoc Community Alcohol Committee.
In a two-day period last week, 12 of Laramie’s 61 alcohol license holders failed compliance checks by the Laramie Police Department.
Based on a point system, Laramie levels administrative sanctions for businesses that are caught violating alcohol-related ordinances or state statutes.
Selling alcohol to a minor earns a business 25 points and a $250 fine.
If a business earns 75 points in a 12-month period, it faces temporary suspensions of its liquor license.
The LPD uses grant funding from the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police to conduct compliance checks twice a year on all license holders.
Because those compliance checks constitute almost all alcohol sanctions, a business could fail every compliance check and not receive a suspension of its license, Blackburn noted.
“If 25 percent of liquor license holders served to clearly underage persons (last week), I don’t think our liquor penalties are scary enough,” he said.
LPD police chief Dale Stalder said the number of compliance check failures last week was unusual.
Typically, three to six of all license holders fail their compliance checks, he said. In 2017, 92 percent of businesses passed both compliance checks.
“This is not the way it usually is,” he said. “I can’t explain the failures this time, but it was certainly more.”
Stalder said the “location of the failures was also a little bit startling to me.”
“Those license holders are not usually ones that generally fail compliance checks,” he said. “The failures were not at locations where you would have expected it, for the most part — not my big college hangouts.”
Last week, the 12 businesses cited for selling to minors included Snowy Range Sports, Bud’s Bar, Bernie’s Mexican Restaurant, Elks Lodge, Napoli’s, 3rd St. Bar and Grill, Pizza Hut, Copper’s Corner, Applebee’s, Hilton Garden Inn, Niko Sushi and Steak and O’Dwyers.
Deirdre O’Dwyer, co-owner of O’Dwyers, said she was very surprised to learn one of her bartenders caused a violation.
“He was somebody that we would have never expected to fail a compliance check,” she said.
Stalder acknowledged it can be difficult for license holders to maintain a culture of vigilance among all servers.
“Staff is not always consistent from year-to-year,” he said.
When a business fails a compliance check, Stalder said its staff typically become more diligent about checking IDs. Safeway was the only business to fail both of its compliance checks in 2016. Now even Stalder gets asked for ID when he buys alcohol there, he said.
The 25 points and $250 penalty is also given to businesses, who along with selling to a minor, are caught selling alcohol after hours or which refuse entry to law enforcement.
Blackburn suggested increasing the individual penalty for each of those violations to 50 points and a $500 fine.
O’Dwyer told Blackburn she feels the existing penalties are already a major deterrent.
“$250 to a small business is a big deal,” she said. “The notion that we do not take this seriously is not representative of small businesses. … Compliance checks are only one indicator of how to address this issue.”
She noted O’Dwyers recently established a policy of not allowing people younger than 21 in the bar area. Her staff also confiscated a fake ID on Saturday, she said.
Sheriff David O’Malley also expressed concern about how stricter penalties for alcohol violations could affect businesses.
“It’s not just the license holder. It hurts every person in that organization (if a license is suspended),” he said.
If the penalties are raised for non-compliant businesses, they should to be raised for underage people who are caught ordering alcohol in a bar, O’Dwyer said.
“In my mind, the criminal is the person who is initiating the criminal act,” O’Dwyer said. “My staff is not out to sell to minors. … If you really want to make a difference in this, you have to hit the underage culprits.
Holli Austin-Belaski, Laramie’s assistant city and prosecuting attorney, said minors’ first alcohol offense typically costs them $335.
Monica Keele, coordinator for one of UW’s alcohol education programs, also suggested a underage violator’s penalty could be increased.
“For some of them, ($335 is) not really a big deal,” she said.
Because LPD conducts only two compliance checks each year, some on the alcohol committee suggested the sample size isn’t significant enough to suggest a business has a chronic issues.
As an alternative to increasing the penalties, Blackburn suggested LPD could instead double the number of compliance checks conducted each year. He also suggested that the alcohol-related fines a business pays could help fund more checks.
“That way the institutions that really do have a problem are paying for it,” he said.
However, Stalder noted the compliance checks already cost $12,000 annually.
“I don’t know if there’s a potential for more,” he said.
Asking Albany County to appropriate money from its state-funded prevention grant could be a way to increase compliance checks, Stalder said.
The funding is provided under new block grants from the Wyoming Department of Health to fund programs aimed at preventing suicide and abuse of tobacco, alcohol and other controlled substances.
Under 2018’s budget bill, Albany County will receive $447,150 in the current biennium for prevention.
“That funding right now is on hold, but that could be another option,” Stalder said.
“Chronic” offenders can have their licenses revoked under the point system, though Stalder said a business has never even had a license suspended since the point system was created.
When a compliance check is failed, the person serving alcohol is cited.
When a business is checked, an underage volunteer attempts to order a drink using their actual ID showing they’re not of legal age.
If the volunteer receives a drink, the business is cited.
In addition to compliance checks, Stalder said police officers also conduct intermittent “sweeps” of patrons in a bar, requiring those with drinks to produce an ID. However, he said law enforcement limits the frequency of that to avoid drawing the ire of bars who believe the practice is bad for business.
“We try to not overdo it, but we try to do it at least 1-2 times a month,” he said.
Bars and restaurants can earn credit under Laramie’s point system by confiscating fake IDs and handing them over to LPD. Each fake ID subtracts five points from their total.
That practice is becoming more common, Stalder said, as people have “started to realize the value of reporting false IDs at the time they’re taken.”