Be Aware of Undercover Underage Drinking Stings and Decoys

Furnishing alcohol to minors is a crime. Specifically, California Business & Professions Code section 25658, which regulates the sale of alcohol in California, makes it a misdemeanor crime to:

  1. Furnish (i.e. sell, provide, or give) or causing to be sold, furnished, or given away any alcoholic beverage to a person under the age of 21;
  2. Being an on-sale licensee and knowingly permitting a person who is under 21 to consume an alcoholic beverage on the premises, even if the licensee does not know that the individual is under 21 years of age.

In addition, were a business to furnish alcohol to a minor, it could also be considered an unlawful business act or practice, in violation of California Business & Professions Code section 17200. This section authorizes a separate civil action for injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties of up to $2,500.00 per occurrence.
Furthermore, furnishing alcohol to a minor is also a cause for license discipline. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) may pursue an administrative action against the holder of an ABC license for violations involving the licensee or licensed premises. The discipline could consist of a warning, probation, suspension, or even a revocation of the license, along with fines ranging from $750.00 to $6,000.00.
One of the most common ways individuals are netted for these crimes is through a type of sting operation. These programs are becoming more common and are spurred by national and statewide grants to local law enforcement.
The Shoulder Tap Program is a program that solicits unsuspecting adults to help buy beer, wine, liquor, or other spirits from a grocery store or liquor store. Typically, the underage stand-in will literally stand outside a business and ask adults walking in to buy liquor for them. If the adult agrees and comes out of the store with the alcohol, the police will usually be standing there waiting for them.
The Minor Decoy Program is a program that relies upon fake identification to gain entrance into a bar, lounge, or nightclub, or use the fake identification to purchase alcohol.
The California Supreme Court has held that the Shoulder Tap and Minor Decoy Programs are legal and not entrapment. The programs allow local law enforcement agencies to use persons under age 20 as decoys to buy alcoholic beverages from licensed premises. The decision to use these programs is up to each law enforcement agency.
Law enforcement agencies that choose to use the Decoy Program must follow these rules:

  • The decoy must be under 20 years old;
  • The decoy must appear under 21 years old;
  • The decoy must carry his or her own I.D. showing the decoy’s correct date of birth or carry no I.D. A decoy who carries I.D. shall present it upon request to any seller of alcoholic beverages;
  • The decoy must answer truthfully any questions about his or her age; and
  • After the sale, the decoy must identify the seller, face to face.
  • After completion of a decoy program the law enforcement agency must notify licensees of the results, whether or not the licensees violated the law.

(Rule 141, California Code of Regulations and Section 25658).
The important thing for licensees is to be aware of your responsibilities. Even if you are aware of the above programs and responsibilities for determining appropriate identification, you also need to properly train and supervise your staff. The hope is that by doing so, no harm will be brought upon the community by underage individuals consuming alcohol. But from your perspective, the extra motivation is avoiding criminal charges, civil fines, and license discipline.