Selling Alcohol to Minors

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The bane of many a bar owner and restaurateur, obtaining a state liquor license can be one of the hardest things your business ever has to do.  But even worse is losing your license for selling alcohol to a minor, after spending months and tens of thousands of dollars to obtain one.

Do I Automatically Lose my Liquor License for Selling Alcohol to a Minor?

No, things are not quite that cut and dry.  There are various factors that go into deciding exactly who is punished, and to what degree, if a minor is served alcohol.  First of all, although all states do have a 21 year old minimum for buying and drinking alcohol, it is not a federal law.  This means that each state is free to create its own laws, punishments, and agencies.  California, for instance, has the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), which is responsible for drafting and enforcing the provisions of the liquor license.

Each state's agency will have specific enforcement provisions about the punishments for violating a liquor license.  In general, the agency is free to revoke a license for ANY offense, even a first one, but in practice they will usually give first time offenders a fine, warning, and/or a suspension of the license (usually a week or so).  If the offense is particularly blatant, the license may be revoked, however.  Also, if you are cited for selling to a minor again within a year of your first citation, many boards automatically revoke your license (some states allow 3 times in one year).  

Upon receiving a citation, you can request an administrative hearing to present your side of the story and any mitigating factors you might have, or can agree to the punishment and submit.  

If your license is revoked, you generally must wait at least six months before applying for another, a process which will be made even more difficult and costly due to the revocation on your record.

If You Sell Alcohol to a Minor, What is the Fine?

Aside from violating your license, selling to a minor is also a crime.  If you are caught selling alcohol to a minor, then there are two sets of penalties given: one to your clerk (who actually made the sale), and one to you, the license holder (the under age minor can also be charged, of course).  

Bear in mind that the range amounts for each fine may be different in each state or jurisdiction.  Generally speaking, most jurisdictions will follow similar fine amounts for selling alcohol to a minor.

But the Kid Showed Me a Fake ID!

In most states, a licensee is only held liable for selling to a minor without asking for any ID.  If ID is asked for, and a fake ID indicating the minor is actually 21 is shown, then in almost all cases, no charges will be filed from either the police or from the alcohol control board.  The one caveat is that the ID must appear to be reasonably realistic:  if it says the minor is 100 years old, or is of a different sex or completely different appearance, then you will likely still be held liable.  But with the prevalence of extremely accurate looking forgeries on the black market, rarely will a bar or liquor store be held liable for accepting a fake ID.  The same applies to actual IDs that don't belong to the minor (i.e. if he uses his older brother's real driver's license). 

The vast majority of police stings are designed to catch vendors who sell to minors without carding, or card them (and get real IDs that say they are minors), and then sell them anyway.  So it is very important that your clerks actually do check the ages of any IDs presented.  A scanning device to confirm the IDs authenticity (available for little cost), will also go a long way in protecting you from liability, even though many forgeries are now so advanced as to pass this test too.  

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you have been cited for selling to a minor, or have even lost your liquor license, you should consult an experienced business attorney immediately.   A good lawyer can help speed up the process of getting a new license, or help you during an administrative hearing with an alcohol board.  If you've been arrested, then you should get a criminal attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights. 

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Last Modified: 05-11-2012 03:05 PM PDT

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