Undercover teens help stop

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 29, 1999

sale of alcohol to minors

By JAINE TREADWELL

Features Editor

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Published Aug. 29, 1999

The young woman placed a four-pack of wine coolers on the counter. She looked around nervously, hoping no one was watching. Her stomach was churning as the clerk turned toward her.

"I need to see an ID," the clerk said.

The young woman opened her purse, pulled out her ID and handed it to the clerk, who frowned as he looked at the young woman’s driver license. "You’re underage. I can’t sell you this," he said.

The young woman said okay and walked out of the store. The clerk looked after her and shook his head.

Outside the store, the young woman breathed a sigh of relief. She had just completed her first assignment as an undercover teen for the Alcohol Beverage Control Board and the clerk had just passed an ID check.

"Annie" is one of five teens who work locally with the ABC Board Minor Operative Program. These teens walk into a business and attempt to buy alcoholic beverages and tobacco products in an attempt to make sure the clerks are doing what they are required by law to do — check IDs.

"We’re not out to trick or trap people," said Russ Harris, ABC agent for District 5. "We’re just checking to make sure that they are doing what they are supposed to do. If they’re not and they’re selling to minors, then they have to pay."

The consequences for the business owner are $500 for the first offense, $750 for the second and $1,000 for the third with the possibility of losing their license to sell alcoholic beverages. As for the clerk, the fine is from $50 up "and, in 90 percent of the cases, he or she loses their job," Harris said.

Being a part of such an operation is a "neat job," said Annie who, after a year on the beat, is a seasoned "secret agent."

"When I first started, I was embarrassed because people would look at me like ‘what are you thinking — you know you’re too young to be buying beer’ but now it doesn’t bother me," Annie said. "But when I go in a grocery store, I still go to the shortest line. I don’t like standing there with beer or wine coolers in my hand."

Annie said she gets about four "buys" for every 10 attempts.

"Most of the buys come from young guys or dirty old men," she said, laughing. "But one of the last times I went out, a girl younger than me sold me wine coolers."

Annie said some times, the clerk will ask for an ID, look at it and sell the beer anyway.

"They’re on video and I guess all they care is if their boss sees them checking IDs," she said.

Older women are usually really tough "sales."

"If a clerk keeps my ID and tells me he’s going to call the police, I tell them I work for the ABC Board and that he’s doing a good job," Annie said. "But sometimes, that doesn’t work."

On a recent ID check in Escambia County, a female clerk threatened to call the police and she didn’t care if Annie did work for the ABC Board.

"She said it was as illegal for me to try and trick her as it was for her to sell to minors," Annie said. "She wouldn’t give me my license even when Russ came in. He told her if she didn’t give it back, he would take her to jail."

Undaunted, the clerk asked an assistant to watch the store and said to Harris, "take me to jail then."

"She really pitched a fit," Annie said. "Finally, she calmed down and gave me back my license. That’s been the only time I was a little scared but I was all right when Russ came in."

Annie said there is more to the job than just trying to make a buy.

"If the case goes to court, we have to be able to identify the clerk so we have to pay close attention when we make a buy so we can give an accurate description," Annie said. "If we make a buy, the agents go in and we’re not allowed back in the store."

Even though the teen "agents" don’t work their home counties, Annie said some students at her school know that she works for the ABC Board.

"Some of them think it’s mean of me because we might bust someone who is selling them beer," Annie said. "I don’t think it’s mean and I think they would do it, too, if they got a chance. A lot of students drink and a lot don’t but we all know what can happen when you do."