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Minor drinkers/major consequences: enforcement strategies for underage alcoholic beverage law violators.

Several sophisticated criminological research projects have confirmed empirically something that law enforcement practitioners have known for a long time: many officers simply do not make teenage alcohol use an enforcement priority. One study surveyed a sample of police personnel and found that many officers rate this type of enforcement activity among the lowest of police responsibilities.(1) A second study revealed that some of the reasons police offered for assigning a low priority to this type of crime included perceived legal obstacles associated with processing juveniles and the unpleasant paperwork and special detention procedures required for minors. Officers also cited such reasons as a lack of juvenile detention facilities or inadequate space inside existing centers, the lack of significant punishment for teen alcohol use, and disagreement with some of the laws regulating underage drinking, especially the illegality of alcohol consumption by adults ages 18 through 20.(2) Although some of these objections represent legitimate concerns, many valid reasons exist for making enforcement of underage alcohol use a higher priority. A factually based rationale for making alcohol violations a priority combined with proven strategies for deterring the illegal purchase, possession, and consumption of alcohol by minors stands the best chance of addressing this growing concern.


Most adults remember taking their first drink at a young age; for some, getting drunk was a rite of passage. To these individuals, underage drinking is a harmless activity, a victimless crime. Yet, the fact remains: underage drinking can have devastating consequences and demands serious attention.

Death and Destruction

More teens die in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes than from any other cause? Alcohol use also contributes to a significant proportion of other types of teenage deaths, such as drownings, suicides, and recreational fatalities.(4) Teenage alcoholism is alarmingly high in the United States and is associated with crimes ranging from petty larceny to homicide. The economic losses alone from alcohol-related property damage, lost productivity, and other detrimental consequences associated with alcohol abuse cost society tens of billions of dollars per year.(5)

In addition to the death toll, property damage, and economic losses, tens of thousands of people are injured seriously in alcohol-related mishaps every year. These accidents occur on the job, around the home, and during social activities.

Adverse Health Effects

Medical studies have documented the detrimental effects of alcohol on the human liver, stomach, pancreas, and other internal organs. Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism, exacerbating the toll on the body. Young female alcoholics put their unborn children at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome.

Public Demand for Police Attention

Finally, the public wants the police to address the problem of underage drinking. In many states, legislatures have passed or are considering passing tougher laws associated with both adult drunk driving and alcohol use by minors. Examples include raising the legal drinking age, lowering the blood-alcohol content (BAC) for legally defined levels of intoxication, enacting stiffer penalties for drunk driving, suspending the driver's licenses of youths caught purchasing or possessing alcohol, and prohibiting licensed, juvenile drivers from operating motor vehicles during certain hours, such as midnight to 5 a.m.

In short, the loss of life, property damage, economic costs, and negative health effects associated with underage drinking, as well as public outcry for police attention, provide sufficient reasons to make the illegal use of alcohol by teens a greater concern among police agencies. To do so, law enforcement agencies can employ a number of tactics.


Undercover Stings

About 90 percent of high school students have tried alcohol, and approximately 60 percent of both high school and college students drink regularly. Forty percent of college students regularly "binge-drink," defined as consuming five or more drinks consecutively; 4 percent of students drink every day.(6)

Unfortunately, the ease with which underage drinkers can purchase alcohol represents a national problem.(7) In an effort to combat this problem, many police agencies supplement surveillance activities with sting operations, during which a minor operative attempts to purchase alcohol from various licensed establishments, such as convenience stores, restaurants, and bars.

Agencies need to take precautions prior to such operations. The commander of the agency should interview and assess the suitability of minors prior to approving their use for paid employment or volunteer work. In some states, additional legal guidelines apply. In Alabama, for example, the minor's parent or guardian must sign a consent form and provide the law enforcement agency with a copy of the child's birth certificate, driver's license, and a recent photograph.(8) In addition, agency policies may require that personnel conducting a sting provide a supervisor with a proposed operational plan for approval prior to action. Further, the attempted purchase should be audio- or videotaped, and money used in the operation should be marked and retrieved whenever possible.(9) When the operative is used in an on-premise location, such as a restaurant, lounge, or club, an undercover officer or agent should take a position inside the establishment to observe the potential sale.

All law enforcement agencies using minor operatives should consider adopting such guidelines as standard operating procedure. Still, officers should contact the local prosecutor or judicial authority before using an operative. In some states, using minors as operatives may present the potential for legal challenge by the defense counsel or may not be legal at all.

Despite the inherent difficulties in using a minor operative, such sting operations have met with success. When Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) officers initiated this technique, approximately 70 percent of the establishments sold alcohol to the underage operative. Following several years of making cases using this technique, the proportion of establishments selling to minor operatives dropped to about 25 percent.

Cops 'N Shops

The Cops 'N Shops program is popular with alcohol merchants in many states, and it produces some deterrent effect on youths trying to purchase alcoholic beverages. The purpose of the program is threefold: to curb the purchase of alcoholic beverages by minors, to assist retail licensees in their efforts to operate their establishments within legal guidelines, and to lower the number of minors who drink and drive. Cops 'N Shops differs from undercover stings in that it focuses on the violator, rather than the alcoholic beverage retail industry. Individuals of legal drinking age who purchase alcohol to sell or give to minors represent a secondary target for this type of operation.

Traditionally, an agent or officer poses as an employee or a customer in a retail establishment, waiting to arrest any minor attempting to purchase alcohol. Sometimes, illegal transactions take place in the parking lot between individuals who legally purchase the alcohol to give to minors waiting outside. Placing a backup officer outside nets these offenders.

Attempts to deter unlawful buyers include special signs to scare those contemplating the offense. These Cops 'N Shops signs, placed at all entrances, notify everyone entering the store that agents may pose as employees and warn that any person violating the law will be prosecuted.(10) Though retailers are sometimes reluctant to participate in the program, Cops 'N Shops has become a viable enforcement strategy in many states.

Party Patrols

Another enforcement strategy involves the use of party patrols. These patrols appear to be the easiest way to make a large number of arrests for underage drinking. Typically, informants at local high schools and universities tip off law enforcement to underage drinkers planning a party. Undercover operatives can attend such gatherings, or officers acting alone can surveil the location and make arrests. A weekend drunk driving and party patrol program in Oregon increased the arrest of minors for possession from 60 to 1,000 in 1 year.(11) There also was a corresponding decrease of 35 percent in underage and young adult automobile crashes. When not hunting teenage parties and citing underage drinkers, the officers operated sobriety checkpoints and conducted drunk driving enforcement patrols.(12)


The walk-through is a method of observing activity inside alcoholic beverage retail outlets such as bars and restaurants. Officers may enter such public places either covertly, in plain clothes, or overtly, in uniform. The obvious advantage of covert entry is that it lets the officer observe alcohol violations without evoking the suspicion of customers or employees. This technique enables officers to spot violations by customers, including attempts to illegally purchase or consume alcoholic beverages or to provide alcohol to underage drinkers. Walk-throughs also allow officers to scrutinize bartenders and other employees who may be serving underage patrons.

In Alabama, the alcoholic beverage industry is considered heavily regulated, and as a result, law enforcement officers with proper jurisdiction may conduct administrative searches or inspections of licensed premises without search warrants. The law in other states may not condone an intensive search without a warrant, but it may allow a walk-through to look for violations. Officers should check with their local prosecutors before employing these techniques.

Legislative Action

Certain legislative and policy actions may effectively deter teenage alcohol use and reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes among young drivers. Many states have lowered the legally acceptable levels of blood-alcohol content for drivers under 21. In Alabama, for example, a youth under age 21 caught operating a motor vehicle with .02 BAC or above is charged with driving under the influence.(13) Two other legislative proposals include laws prohibiting driving by young, novice drivers between certain times, especially midnight to 5 a.m., and a 90-day license suspension for youths convicted of possessing alcoholic beverages or using a false driver's license to purchase alcohol.(14)


Simply put, underage drinking is against the law. Yet, in a culture that views alcohol consumption as a part of growing up, even those tasked with enforcing the law may overlook violations. The many consequences of irresponsible drinking, by youths and adults alike, demand action.

During a time of increasing attention to other drugs of abuse, such as marijuana and cocaine, police administrators who must operate with limited financial resources may have difficulty allocating the necessary staff to combat the underage drinking problem. Yet, with help from policy makers, retailers, and the public, agencies can implement innovative enforcement strategies to curb underage drinking.


1 A.C. Wagenaar and Mark Wolfson, "Deterring Sales and Provision of Alcohol to Minors: A Study of Enforcement in 295 Counties in Four States," Public Health Reports 110, no. 4 (1995): 419-427.

2 Mark Wolfson, A.C. Wagenaar, and Gary Hornseth, "Law Officers' Views on Enforcement of the Legal Drinking Age: A Four-State Study," Public Health Reports 110, no. 4 (1995): 428-437.

3 A.C. Wagenaar, J.R. Finnegan, Mark Wolfson, Pamela Ansline, Carolyn Williams, and Cheryl Perry, "Where and How Adolescents Obtain Alcoholic Beverages," Public Health Reports 108, no. 1 (1993): 459-464.

4 John Noble, Working Paper: Projections of Alcohol Abusers, 1980-1985-1990, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Department of Biometry and Epidemiology, 1990, 5-6.

5 Robert Little and Kenneth Clotz, "Young, Drunk, and Dangerous Driving," Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education 39, no. 2 (1994): 37-49.

6 Toward a Drug-Free Generation: A Nation's Responsibility. National Commission on Drug-Free Schools (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1990).

7 Surgeon General C. Everett Coop, cited in Safety Recommendation to the Governor of Alabama, National Transportation Safety Board, March 11, 1994, 4.

8 Jean & Frank Bartlett, DBA Package Palace v. Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, et al., Supreme Court of Alabama, October term, 1992-1993, case no. 1910325.

9 Director of Enforcement, Alabama ABC Board, internal memorandum, April 7, 1995.

10 Director of Enforcement, Alabama ABC Board, internal memorandum, September 1991.

11 Thomas Radecki, "How to Best Enforce the Legal Drinking Age," Operation Straight ID Symposium, panel discussion, Hillside, Illinois, May 30-31, 1995.

12 Ibid.

13 Title 32-5A-191(b), Code of Alabama, 1996.

14 Title 28-3A-25(b)(2), Code of Alabama, 1995.

Dr. Little is a criminal justice professor at High Point University, High Point, North Carolina.

Mr. Bishop serves as district supervisor for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Enforcement Division in Florence, Alabama.
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Author:Bishop, Mike
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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