Law holds bartenders more accountable than minors

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It is often difficult for bartenders to prevent underage drinking. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission enforces steep disincentives for bartenders in an attempt to keep minors away from alcohol. (Photo Illustration)

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This is the last installment in a three-part series on underage drinking, focusing on the role of bartenders.

Any system of rules and regulations based on controlling alcohol requires some level of trust between all the players involved.

However, when you’re a bartender you can never fully trust anyone who walks into the bar since they could either be a minor with a fake ID or a cop on a sting operation.

“As a bartender, you’re constantly dealing with situations that can end in fines, community service, jail time or loss of your license and your vote,” said one bartender who has worked downtown and around campus for three months but chose to not be named. “The stakes are extremely high because failure to respect the law results in unfair consequences. It’s not something you want to gamble with.”

While the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the UT Police Department conduct sting operations that take note of Greek life’s events and alcohol-related incident statistics to decide when and where they’ll strike, the bartender is held more liable than the minor.

“The difference between you being fined and going to prison and the bartender being fined and going to prison is if you destroy your ID. The consensus among my [underage] friends in that situation is to get rid of the fake IDs before anyone asked to see them,” added the bartender.

This is where the ability to control the substance fails. A bartender or store owner who serves a minor faces a Class A Misdemeanor with a fine up to, but not exceeding, $4,000 and/or one year in jail. The minor could potentially receive the higher Third Degree Felony if they’re caught with a fake ID that has a penalty of a $10,000 fine and 2 to 10 years in jail. But, if no counterfeit is found on their person, the charge is reduced to the lowest misdemeanor, Class C, and a maximum fine of $500.

Although it was unclear from the interviews conducted how exploited this potential legal loophole is because of the sensitive nature of the issue, current legislation does place more blame on those who would enable a minor to acquire alcohol.

“If there wouldn’t be any adults giving alcohol to minors there would be much fewer of them drinking and fewer deaths,” said Carolyn Beck, TABC director of communications and governmental relations. “I haven’t heard anything about minors destroying the ID, though. Who is the TABC more likely to believe? The bartender or the drunk minor?”

Controlling a substance such as alcohol is extremely difficult, especially in Austin during festivals such as South By Southwest. I know from personal experience that minors have purchased alcohol when bars became inundated with inebriated festival-goers. Bartenders respond that it is difficult to keep up with all of the demands from customers as well as every single law.

There are roughly only 250 TABC agents for the entire state, forcing them to rely on local law enforcement, bartenders and convenience store owners to uphold laws.

In the last round of minor sting operations, where the TABC had minors ages 16 to 18 without IDs attempt to purchase alcohol, there were a total of 9,256 discreet stings from June 15, 2010 to 2011. While that may seem like a lot, Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., has a total of 7,584 currently active retailer licenses.

So, how can we fully regulate and control alcohol? Or any substance for that matter? In Texas, we rely upon those who deal with the daily hand-to-hand transactions and hold them more liable than the minor, a responsibility bartenders and other alcohol purveyors should live up to.

“It’s all a part of the game,” said Paige, a bartender who’s worked downtown since February 2009 but asked for her last name to be withheld. “You must card everyone and know the consequences if you don’t. Either you do that or your ass is on the line.”

Still, bartenders are faced with steep disincentives to keep the substance under control.

“As a bartender, you have to be smart and just assume everyone else is smart,” said the first anonymous bartender. “We don’t want anyone to hurt themselves. This is just our job. We make human errors, though, and I think the system is broken if our customer’s human errors result in unequal punishment. [Bartenders] are agreeing to be arrested for crimes that we’re not trying to commit.”

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Printed on Thursday, August 4, 2011 as: Unequal blame game