Montgomery cracking down on underage liquor sales

Local,Kathleen Miller
One in five Montgomery County liquor stores did not comply with laws prohibiting sales to customers under 21 during checks last year, but the county still performed far better than many others in Maryland.

Montgomery County inspectors had people under 21 attempt to purchase alcohol from 600 of the county’s 925 licensed establishments, and Kathie Durbin, a division chief for Montgomery County Liquor Control, said about 180 of those vendors failed to either card the youth or read the identification properly.

“As these checks go, certainly 20 percent is not horrible,” Durbin said. “But of course, we’d like it at zero.”

Baltimore City liquor control officials said they just instituted a sting program last September, and have cited 300, or nearly half of the 600 to 700 facilities they visited, for serving to underage customers. They’ve also temporarily suspended liquor licenses for at least five places in the past year for repeat violations.

Liquor control officials from Charles and Harford counties said high failure rates are common for counties that are just starting compliance programs or stiffening penalties for problems. Charles County had failure rates of 50 percent and Harford County had failure rates of 75 percent before they ramped up their sting programs.

“A popular pizza place was shut down for 30 days last year — they sold to a minor three times in a year,” said John Buchanan, assistant county attorney for Charles County. “When you close down a place for 30 days, the word gets out. Now we’re at about a 28 percent failure rate.”

Mac McWilliams, the chief inspector for Harford County Liquor Control, agreed, saying the county finally saw results when liquor board members started slapping problem vendors with harsher penalties after eight underage people died in alcohol-related accidents on local roads between 1996 and 1997. Harford policy allows fine ranging from $250 to $2,000 for a first offense or suspension of a liquor license and a third offense in a year results in a revoked license.

“When word got out that we were fining heavier than the minimum, that we weren’t taking any nonsense, that is when we got compliance,” McWilliams said.

Prince George’s officials say only eight vendors, about 3 percent of the 245 checked for compliance, failed — they credit a mandatory training program for all liquor license holders.

Maryland Del. Bill Bronrott, who chairs a State House committee on drug and alcohol abuse, said that compliance checks are necessary to make a 21-year-old drinking age work.

“More teens die from alcohol abuse than all other drug use in our country,” Bronrott said. “By all accounts, there is a lot more that every community ought to be doing.”
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