City investigates more punishments for beer sales to minors

By Thomas Wilson

At Thursday night's meeting for the Elizabethton Beverage Board, City Attorney Roger Day suggested District Attorney General Joe Crumley could set a policy throughout the 1st Judicial District to make jail time mandatory for anyone convicted of selling alcohol to a minor.
   The issue arose during a show cause hearing of Road Runner Market #141, 416 State Route 91, owned by Mountain Empire Oil Company based in Johnson City. An employee of the market was cited by Elizabethton Police on the charge of sale of beer to a minor.
   The board gave Mountain Empire Oil Company representatives the option of a $1,500 civil penalty or having its license suspended for 90 days. The board assessed the penalty despite the fact that the store employee who allegedly made the sale has not been adjudicated through Carter County General Sessions Court. The employee's whereabouts are not known.
   The show cause hearing raised issues regarding technology used by businesses to make alcohol sales and punishment of employees beyond the historical standard of a fine and probation.
   How the board addresses future violators -- and tames illegal beer sales -- could depend on offender sentencing, sales technology and police intervention.
   Selling alcohol to a minor is a class A misdemeanor under state law. A misdemeanor conviction carries a sentence of up to one year in jail. Business employees who have pled guilty in the past typically received a $50 fine, a suspended jail term and six months on probation. Companies also frequently dismiss employees cited for making illegal alcohol sales.
   While many markets use electronic cash registers that require a valid date of birth to be entered for alcoholic beverages sales, the system is not foolproof. Newer point-of-sale machines can be programmed to require an electronic scan of a driver's license for beverages purchases.
   The city and county governments have beverage board entities that issue permits to businesses seeking to sell suds. An applicant must pay a license privilege fee, pass a background check by police and meet all zoning requirements pertaining to minimum distances from churches and schools.
   Applicants apply to the city for on-premises and off-premises beer permits depending on whether beer is consumed at the business or taken by the buyer. If a business is cited for selling to a minor, the offense is recorded and kept on file for three years.
   A first offense has historically brought the choice of a $250 fine or a three-day suspension of the permit. A second offense has carried a $750 fine or a two-week suspension.
   Alcoholic beverage issues could become more pronounced in Elizabethton in the future. The Elizabethton-Carter County Economic Development Commission has formally endorsed pursuing both restaurants that serve mixed drinks and package stores as part of its economic development plan for the current year. Citizens are seeking signatures for a petition to place a liquor by the drink referendum before Elizabethton voters on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
   Unlike beer sales, the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission issues liquor licenses and often polices sales to minors. Municipal police departments have conducted sting operations of illegal liquor sales at both package stores and restaurants.
   The "Cops in Shops" is a cooperative program that requires the willing participation of alcoholic beverage retailers. Law enforcement officers, posing as either employees of the retailer or customers, are stationed inside the retailer's premises to apprehend underage persons when they attempt to buy alcoholic beverages. Local governments around the nation use the program in cooperation with local and state law enforcement agencies.
   The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Committee (TABC) started its Cops in Shops program in 1993 after the Texas Legislature changed the law to make it illegal for a minor to attempt to purchase alcohol. The state's program is funded through state and federal dollars.