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Sting operation uncovers high rate of underage sales

Six Island establishments failed a sting operation and sold alcohol to minors March 28, infractions that could cost them their liquor licences for days, officials said last week.

Individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 working with the state Liquor Control Board attempted to purchase alcohol at 10 Island businesses and were successful at six, including several restaurants and one of Vashon’s grocery stores.

For three of the six businesses, this was the second or third time they had served alcohol to individuals under 21, said Anne Radford, a spokesperson for the state Liquor Control Board.

Failure to comply with alcohol laws will result in fines or liquor license suspensions for the six businesses, though each will have the opportunity to appeal the decision and potentially have it reduced to a lesser fine or shorter license suspension, Radford said.

With only four of 10 randomly selected businesses upholding Washington’s alcohol laws, Vashon’s rate of success during the sting was only 40 percent, half of the statewide average.

“That’s not a good compliance rate at all,” said Justin Nordhorn, enforcement captain of the King County region of the state liquor board. “For many years, we’ve been seeing compliance rates at the state level running around 80 percent. This is well below the state average.”

Each of the businesses that failed to notice a buyer was underage will be penalized according to the frequency of its infractions in the past two years.

The Sportsmen’s Inn — “Sporty’s” — served alcohol to a minor for the third time in the last two years and faces a 30-day liquor license suspension, during which time it cannot serve alcohol of any kind, Radford said. The business cannot pay a fine to avoid the license suspension.

An employee at the Sportsmen’s Inn checked the investigative aide’s ID, and though it showed the individual to be underage, the employee served him or her alcohol, Nordhorn said.

Owner Pete Chorak said he had not heard the official decision on the penalty his bar faces but plans to appeal the liquor board’s decision once it is handed down. Several other owners whose businesses face penalties were unavailable or declined to comment.

For All India Café and The Rock Island Pub & Pizza, their failure to comply with alcohol laws is the second such incident in two years, Radford said. Each establishment faces a seven-day suspension of its liquor license, with no option for a fine instead. Neither restaurant checked ID, he said.

Vashon Thriftway, Green Ginger Restaurant and Vashon Chevron each served alcohol to minors for the first time in the past two years, and each faces a five-day liquor license suspension or a $500 fine. The clerks at Thriftway and Chevron checked the investigative aide’s identification, but failed to notice the purchaser was underage and allowed him or her to purchase alcohol, Nordhorn said. Green Ginger did not check ID, he said.

The four establishments that passed the liquor board’s compliance check and did not allow minors to purchase alcohol are Vashon Island Liquor Store, Red Bicycle Bistro & Sushi, Vashon Market and Mom’s Deli (Union 76).

Nordhorn explained the process of the “standard compliance check” that was carried out on Vashon March 28. Compliance checks are conducted randomly on Vashon once every few months. The last compliance check was carried out in January.

Individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 enter an establishment and try to purchase alcohol, he said.

“They give real IDs if asked, and it’s up to the clerk or bartender to read it correctly and refuse the sale,” he said. “They’re only allowed to use their real identification.”

Three of the six businesses that sold alcohol to underage buyers checked their ID but failed to notice that the individual was under 21 and sold him or her alcohol, Nordhorn said.

He added that an easy way to tell if someone is not 21 is by his or her Washington state ID card or driver’s license, which is formatted vertically instead of horizontally. Like a portrait, it’s taller than it is wide.

This differentiation between IDs of those under 21 and those of the legal drinking age was implemented in 2001 to make it easier for those who check IDs to tell who is underage, according to the state Department of Licensing.

Vertical IDs, those issued before an individual turned 21, state clearly the date of the individual’s 21st birthday.

“Don’t assume that because someone is showing you ID, they are 21,” Nordhorn said. “You gotta slow it down, look at the age, and complete the no-sale.”

He said it’s not unusual for those establishments that fail a compliance check once to stiffen up their procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

A few weeks before the March 28 compliance check on Vashon, the Liquor Control Board offered, in conjunction with the King County Sheriff’s office, a free class for vendors about selling alcohol legally.

An invitation was extended to all Island businesses that sell alcohol and their employees. Only one employee from Vashon Thriftway showed up, Nordhorn said.

It’s likely that the liquor board will offer another such class on Vashon in the coming months, Nordhorn said, so establishments are more likely to pass compliance checks the next time around.

“Our goal is to get people back into compliance,” he said. “It’s not to shut them down or penalize them.”

Vashon teens, who were found in a statewide Healthy Youth Survey to use alcohol more than their peers statewide, drink because they have access to alcohol, noted therapist Stephen Bogan, who works with teens struggling with substance abuse.

“If these establishments are going to make a lot of money on offering wine and beer to the community, then they need to make sure they are not selling to those who are underage,” he said. “It concerns me that alcohol and drugs are easy to get on the Island, and having those stings it plays out that some of those organizations are not doing a good enough job in only selling to adults.”

While friends and family are sometimes the ones who give underage Islanders access to alcohol, he noted, establishments that sell to underage buyers are certainly at fault.

“Our part in this is to make sure the outlets that are selling alcohol ... are selling it responsibly,” Nordhorn said. “Studies show a lot of risk factors for underage consumption. The implications for both social and physical use are compacted with folks who are drinking at a younger age.”

“This comes down to what we see as a strong public safety impact in the communities we serve,” he added.

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