Sunday, January 4, 2009

Eight Area Businesses Caught Selling Alcohol To Minors During A December Sting In Vernal, Utah; Could Sabotage Utah's Effort To Liberalize Liquor Laws

Primary Utah media outlets are just now picking up the story about an official Utah state liquor store caught selling alcohol to a minor during a December sting in Vernal, Utah. Stories have been published by the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and KSL Channel 5 (each replete with public comments).

But their stories barely scratch the surface. According to the original story published December 23rd, 2008 in the Vernal Express, eight different businesses in the Vernal area were nabbed for selling alcohol to minors during the sting conducted on December 5-6. The businesses are listed as follows:

Two-Time Offenders:
-- Laverne & Shirley’s Conoco, 1175 E. Hwy 40, Vernal
-- Top Stop Chevron, 722 W. Hwy 40, Vernal
-- Maeser 7-Eleven, 500 N. 2500 W., Maeser
-- Jensen Sinclair, 9475 E. 6000 S, Jensen

First Offenders:
-- Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Store #28, 675 E. Main St., Vernal
-- Maverick, 951 W. Hwy 40, Vernal
-- Winger’s Diner, 1797 W. 1000 S., Vernal
-- Randlett Mercantile, 10329 E. 4250 S., Vernal

The December 5-6 sting was the second quarterly sting conducted by the Vernal Police Department. They sent a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old in to the stores to attempt to buy alcohol in conjunction with the state's "Eliminate Alcohol Sales to Youth" program. The two presented their real drivers licenses as identification. The two-time offenders were also caught selling to minors during the first sting operation conducted in early August.

In a separate sting operation on December 14th, a 20-year-old patron purchased and consumed alcohol at Cassidy’s Club, 1350 E Main St. Though not a part of the Dec. 5-6 operation, the club was part of the August sting and was found to be in violation at that time.

But it was the sale at the state liquor store that became particularly newsworthy, attracting the special ire of Vernal Police Chief Gary Jensen and Vernal City Council members. “I was a little disappointed. They didn’t seem to be too uptight about it,” Jensen said. “There is an irony here. If you are a person selling alcohol in any one of these convenience stores, by UDABC rules you have to have a name tag. In Vernal, they opted themselves out of that in their store.” The employee who sold to the minor was not wearing a name tag.

Jensen also explained that the 18-year-old who was successful in buying alcohol from the state store was not even asked for his ID. “Typically people will actually ask for ID, and our youth, with confidence, give it to them.” And there's nothing subtle about it. A minor’s drivers licenses states clearly, “Under 21 until (date)” and is formatted vertically rather than horizontally. It's actually written on the license.

Jensen said he spoke with the director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control who indicated he was looking forward to addressing the council, adding he was sorry and disappointed with his group in Vernal. The UDABC director and representatives from the other businesses that sold to the minors will have the opportunity to describe what each intends to do to end underage sales when the council meets January 7th. All will receive a letter from Vernal City Mayor Allan Mashburn mandating their presence. Five of them were specifically identified on the City Council's published agenda for the meeting.

I find the irony of this amusing because the state moved a whole line of alcohol products out of the grocery stores and into the state liquor agencies so they’d be more secure, so the kids would be less likely to get into the malt liquor things,” said council member Jo Ann Cowan. “Then a 16-year-old kid can walk into there and buy it where if he tried to buy from a grocery store, he would have been ID’d at either Smiths or Jubilee or WalMart. But he goes to the state liquor store and he can get it. That’s surely not what the legislature intended.”

Stores selling alcohol to minors could lose their license to sell alcohol. The local public is invited to attend the 7 P.M. January 7th meeting of the Vernal City Council at 447 E. Main St.

For those who are unfamiliar with Utah's unusual liquor laws, explanations are available both officially and in plain English.

Another possible reason that Vernal city authorities are reacting so strongly to the outcome of this sting is because of a serious move afoot to liberalize Utah's liquor laws. Not only is Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. leading this effort, but the LDS Church has relaxed their previous open opposition to change. However, Utah State Senate President Mike Waddoups (District 6, R-West Jordan) is known to be opposed to liberalizing liquor laws; not only does he believe it will lead to an upsurge in underage drinking and DUI’s, but he's personally invested in maintaining the present system because his wife was badly hurt in a car accident involving another motorist who was driving under the influence. And Mike Waddoups' opposition is hardly just anecdotal; as Senate President, he has the power to unilaterally kill any bills he doesn't like.

Consequently, to soften Waddoups' opposition, the Vernal City Council needs to react strongly at the January 7th meeting. They should suspend the alcohol licenses of the four two-time offenders for a period of at least six months to send a message that liberalization of liquor laws not only will not result in an upsurge of abuse, but that those who attempt or facilitate the unlawful purchase of alcohol will be swiftly and vigorously punished. Indeed, according to this other Vernal Express story, it's almost guaranteed that both Laverne & Shirley's and Top Stop will emerge from the January 7th meeting with a suspension, at the very least.

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