Joe the Buyer (not his real name) struck out at six different North Bend stores recently when he tried to buy beer. Clerks quietly, sometimes apologetically, turned the 18-year-old away at groceries, convenience stores and gas stations time and again. The enforcement officers working with him on the sting began to have high hopes for the rest of the night.
“If we get no buys tonight, that would be wonderful,” said Liquor Control Board officer Troy McCallister. He’s in street clothes, as is King County Sheriff’s Deputy Amy Jarboe, for the undercover operation, backed up by North Bend Police Chief Sgt. Mark Toner, in uniform.
A few stops later, though, Joe had bought his third six-pack of Bud Light. On his way into the store for the arrest and manager notification, McCallister shrugged, palms up, as if asking ‘what happened?’
By the end of the night, Joe had made three buys in 10 attempts. The results were disappointing for the officers, but on par with the statewide average of 25 to 30 percent “non-compliant” sales to minors. They were also on par with Joe’s own experience working on liquor sales stings for the past eight months.
“Every time I’ve gone, I’ve gotten at least one,” he said of his buying record. That includes at ‘on-sale’ businesses like restaurants and bars where, he says, “I’ve opened a couple of tabs.”
Joe, an aspiring Washington State Patrol trooper, is already one of the youngest employees of the state, working part-time as an Investigative Aide for the Liquor Control Board. His job is to test store clerks’ knowledge of and compliance with state law, by trying to buy some alcohol. He has to do it fairly, though, using his own, vertical driver’s license (horizontal licenses are issued only to people 21 or older), and making no particular effort to hide his age.
The liquor sales sting operation is officially called an emphasis patrol, and the emphasis here is on fairness. Neither agency wants to trip up a store clerk with a fake ID, for instance, or test him or her during a busy shift.
“I’m not about entrapment,” explained North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner. “I want compliance.”
Investigative aides have to be 18 or older to participate in liquor sales enforcement, though, because the operations are still compliance checks. “If they’re under 18, it’s not really a fair attempt,” McCallister explained.
Joe’s attempts were all on a nothing-special Thursday evening in early August, no big events, no reason to expect more activity. In fact, Toner was hoping that his usual approach of notifying businesses in advance of the sting—and reminding them of the exact details in the law—would keep everyone on their toes.
“Not everybody does it my way,” he said, “I’m very aggressive on education.” The reason why was apparent with Joe’s first successful buy. It was at a busy convenience store, with a few customers shopping, a large family eating in the dining area, and an increasingly panicked clerk. “I’m sorry!” he said, sidling away from Deputy Jarboe, trying to distance himself in the area behind the counter. “It was an accident!” Undeterred, Jarboe read him his Miranda rights, and he became distraught. “I need this job!”
On top of the $5,000 fine, a possible 364 days in jail, and a record of furnishing a minor with liquor, job loss is a real possibility for any cashier caught in violation of the law.
“It’s dangerous—for them,” Toner said of the clerks. Employers respond to these incidents differently, he explained. Some businesses have a zero-tolerance policy; others might overlook a mistake, once or twice—and sales to minors are almost always unintentional.
“I’d say that 99.99 percent of the time, it’s a mistake,” McCallister told one of the clerks who sold to Joe. “Only once in 20 years have I found a guy who said ‘It’s OK, just give me an extra $20.’”
Arresting their own citizens, even for a mistake, is hard on both Jarboe and Toner, who take a little time to regroup after each one. McCallister has a slightly easier time on this part of the operation, but only because the people he needs to talk to, the managers, are usually not there during the stings. He has to come back in the next few days to tell them they’re subject to a $500 fine, or a five-day suspension of their liquor license, for a first offense. It’s a stressful exercise all around, including for Joe. He’s isolated from scenes like the one inside the convenience store—policy is that aides never re-enter a store after making a buy, unless they need to identify a clerk—but he does start the process, and he is clearly trying to break the law.
“If I see someone I know, I just walk away,” he said, during a brief before the start of the operation. Aides rarely work in their home areas, though, so that’s unlikely. Also, he says, clerks rarely show anger when they find he’s under-age. Sometimes they don’t even ask for his ID, although they seem to think he’s under-age, he said.
After his second buy, he was waiting in the car, done with his report and now playing video games on his phone, and talking about his experiences.
“I haven’t had anyone get mad at me,” he said. More typically, “they get really nervous and really quiet… then if I’m OK with it, they get confused. The older people usually say, ‘This is a sting, isn’t it?’” Joe is pragmatic about his own risk, which he thinks is low. To ensure his protection, and all the investigative aides’, one or both of the undercover officers get into place in the store before he enters it. Since they’re all enforcement officers, they’re all carrying guns, too.
“I don’t know why they’re armed,” he says. “I’ve never had any problems… but I’m armed as well.” After a short pause, he adds, “They don’t like that joke very much!”
No weapons were needed for this sting, and none of the clerks were booked into jail for liquor violations. However, one of them was arrested on a four-year-old warrant, and taken off to jail by another deputy. He was a local guy, cooperated fully, and seemed to want to resolve any lingering issues from the incident. This one took some regrouping time, too and Joe, who watched from the car, seemed to sense it. Next chance he got, he asked Toner about “the guy with the warrant, what’s up with him?”
Toner assured him that the clerk would have eventually been picked up on the warrant, and it had nothing to do with the evening’s activities. That seemed to help. Toner himself was reassured that the clerk would be able to keep his job, after talking to the store manager who happened to be at the shop, too.
Liquor Control has occasionally gone to bat for clerks who’ve sold to minors, too, McCallister said. “Sometimes, the best ID checkers are the ones who just got caught.”
This night at least, the best ID checkers were primarily in North Bend’s downtown, but all local businesses with liquor licenses need to stay alert, because the sting is not over. Patrols like this one will continue for the next several months, and this is the time of year, just before school starts, that Toner’s office sees an increase in liquor sales.
Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Above, North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner documents an ill-sold six-pack of beer, bought by an underage liquor control agent..
Know the law for liquor
Washington’s alcoholic beverage control code spells out the governance of liquor licenses and beyond, with specific guidance about furnishing liquor to minors in RCW 66.44.270, paraphrased here:
(1) It is unlawful for any person to supply liquor to any person under the age of 21 or permit anyone under that age to consume liquor on his or her premises. Violation is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and/or 90 days in jail.
(2) The same is true for anyone under 21 to possess or consume liquor, or to appear intoxicated in a public place—investigative aides being exempted.
(3) Investigative aides, minors with their parents and situations involving consumption for religious or medicinal purposes are exempt.