District officials and a top hospitality trade group on Thursday endorsed the prospect of a crackdown against businesses that display a "pattern" of selling alcohol to underage customers, in a push that could ultimately lead to suspensions of alcohol licenses and steep fines.
"We don't have a lot of these, but they do exist," said Ward 1 D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, who chairs the council panel with oversight of alcohol regulations.
Graham acknowledged he and others involved with any legislation face a steep task: clearly defining what constitutes a pattern of behavior, especially in cases where regulators have limited evidence of the sales.
"That language can be fleshed out and established," said Graham, though he acknowledged the standard may well be comparable to former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's view that although he could not clearly define obscenity, he was able to "know it when I see it."
And although the District's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has sometimes clashed with bar and restaurant owners, both sides said they would work with Graham to craft tougher rules
against businesses suspected of engaging in a pattern of illegal activity.
"We certainly think that under those circumstances, a warning is inappropriate," said Andrew Kline of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, which touts more than 700 members.
Graham said he hoped to have legislation ready by early February.
The coalescing around potentially tougher penalties for serial violators came as the council was evaluating a proposed regulation that would make selling alcohol to a minor without even bothering to ask for identification an "egregious" violation of city law.
Egregious violations of the city's alcohol regulations carry fines of at least $2,000 and possible suspensions of a business's alcohol license.
The restaurant association has lobbied against the proposal, arguing that the penalties would be especially stiff for businesses whose employees might have unintentionally failed to request identification.
"If somebody simply doesn't ask for an ID, we don't see where that should be an egregious violation," Kline told The Washington Examiner last summer.
But the alcohol board ultimately approved the proposal by a 4-1 vote. Its chairwoman, Ruthanne Miller, questioned whether the new guideline would help curb underage sales.
"We don't have any data," said Miller, who also said she was concerned about the effects of the high fines on the hospitality industry.
The council must decide by March 14 whether to allow the new regulation to move forward, but Graham on Thursday said lawmakers didn't have enough information, especially in light of Miller's concerns.
Graham said he would request more data and testimony next month before calling for a vote.
"The first step in considering it is being sure that we understand the basis and the rationale," Graham said. "I'm anxious to make sure there's ample opportunity for public discussion."