Commonwealth Flexible on Retail Alcohol Violations

A Clarke County sting operation that netted underage alcohol sales violations in seven stores across the county has many citizens wondering what comes next for the individuals and establishments caught by the busts. According to Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control, the penalty for an offense is often up to the offender to suggest.

“The licensee  has the option of choosing to accept the penalty, or, if they feel it is  too harsh, they can make an offer in compromise or go to hearing to seek  a lesser penalty” said Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Kathleen  Shaw. “It is common for licensees to make offers in  compromise, or go to hearing to seek a reduced penalty. ”

Shaw said that while there is no “standard penalty” administratively for the sale of alcohol to minors, the Virginia ABC Board does have suggested penalties for certain offenses. For instance, Shaw said, for a  first offense sale of wine or beer to a person at least 18 years old but under the age of 21, the establishment has the choice of either a 25-day suspension of the ABC license or a  $2,000 civil penalty. Shaw said that if the violating establishment believed that either was too severe they can also suggest an alternative penalty to  Virginia ABC.

Whether Virginia ABC’s first-offense penalty is appropriate may depend on the perspective of the offending establishment. While a 25-day suspension of an ABC license would be severe for any sized retailer, the  option of accepting a $2,000 fine instead of a license suspension is proportionately a much larger blow to small retailers.

Virginia ABC’s Kathleen Shaw says that when another law enforcement agency charges a clerk with  selling  alcohol to an underage person, the agency typically refers the charge to ABC to handle the case  administratively.

In the case of the recent underage alcohol purchase uncovered by Clarke County law enforcement at the Berryville Food Lion, a store clerk was charged rather than  the establishment itself. According to the Clarke County General District Court website the Food Lion clerk pleaded guilty to selling alcohol to an under-aged person, a Class 1 Misdemeanor, and received a fine of $50 along with $31 in court costs.

Food Lion’s corporate office did not respond to questions submitted for this article.

“Every violation report is handled on a case-by-case  basis” Shaw said. “If charges are brought against  the ABC license, the licensee will  be afforded due process as the agency is directed to follow under the  “Rules of Practice” provided by Board regulations. Any charge brought against an ABC license may result  in dismissal, fines and/or suspension,  or revocation. If charges are brought against the employee who  sold to the underage person, the charge is a criminal charge, Class 1 Misdemeanor, punishable by up to  a $2,500 fine and/or one year in jail.”

Margaret  Chabris, a  7-Eleven spokesperson, said that her firm has a comprehensive training program  on the proper and legal  way to sell age-restricted products. Chabris said that the information is  included in training for all employees at company-operated stores and that all franchisees must successfully complete the training. 7-Eleven also makes the information available for franchise stores  to use for training their employees.

Regarding the recent Clarke County sting operation Chabris said that 7-Eleven deeply regrets that an unlawful sale of alcohol to a minor was  committed at one of its 7-Eleven stores.

“We are investigating the circumstances and will provide appropriate counseling or discipline  – depending on whether the store is franchised” Chabris said. “We were glad, however,  that two other 7-Eleven stores did pass the sting operation and did not  sell alcohol to someone  under the legal drinking age. 7-Eleven has a  comprehensive training program for the proper  and legal way to sell  age-restricted products. The program not only addresses alcohol, but  includes information on the laws and ways to refuse illegal sales of  tobacco, lottery and potential inhalants.”

Shaw said that Virginia ABC has an Underage Buyer (UAB) program active in the Clarke County area, but was not directly involved in the sting operation conducted by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are aware that alcohol use by individuals under the age of 21  is a serious problem throughout the Commonwealth” said Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Kathleen  Shaw. “Our agents have  attended meetings in Clarke County regarding underage drinking and have  provided alcohol education  materials to different groups in Clarke County. We conduct underage checks in the county and have made  observations of ABC licensed establishments.”

While penalties for the sale of alcohol to minors can vary, the offense can lead to a license suspension. In the calendar year ending on July 1, 2010, VABC processed 936 violations of alcoholic beverage violations resulting in charges. Of the 520 Underage Buyer (UAB) busts, 345 resulted in a license suspension of between three to ninety days.

A complete review of Virginia ABC  Final Board Orders for the past four years can be viewed at  http://www.abc.virginia.gov/hearings/boardorders/board_orders.html . Virginia ABC  suggested penalties for first offenses can  be viewed at  http://www.abc.virginia.gov/hearings/firstoffense.html