Authorities arrested seven store clerks on misdemeanor charges for illegally selling minors alcohol in a citywide sweep earlier this month, a move opponents of underage drinking are applauding.
In all, police checked 18 stores throughout Alexandria on June 17, sending minors in to buy alcohol and making arrests if the sale was made. Its an operation the department runs roughly four times a year, said Capt. William Johnson.
The underage subjects are instructed to show their real license if prompted and give their actual age if questioned. Theres no ploy involved, Johnson said.
In fact we go out of our way to make sure they cant look different than the age that they are, Johnson said. We tell them to show their proper ID and answer questions truthfully. Theyre told not to wear clothing that suggest theyre older no college sweatshirts and the young women dont wear makeup or earrings, nothing to suggest theyre older.
Its similar to arranging a drug buy to get a warrant, he said. After the illegal sale is made, plain clothes officers enter the store and arrest the offender for a class one misdemeanor.
Authorities have not released the names of those arrested, nor have they identified the stores where they worked. The businesses in violation will be reported to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. First-time offenders face a $2,000 fine or 25-day suspension of their liquor license.
Officers employ the same strategy to ensure restaurants and bars are in compliance, Johnson said.
The operation is an important tool to keep alcohol from getting into the hands of youths in a city where underage drinking is a problem, said Allen Lomax, chair of the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria.
There is a number of youth, a number were definitely not happy with, getting alcohol and drinking, Lomax said. We did a focus group in 2008 and they said it was easy to get. They can get it from older siblings, from their parents liquor cabinets and also, its unfortunate that some stores will still sell it.
Twenty percent of Alexandria City Public School students, from seventh graders to high school seniors, reported drinking once or more in the previous 30 days in a 2010 survey. Fourteen percent said they had been drunk once or more in the previous two weeks.
The chance minors are drinking doesnt really differ between gender, ethnicity or class, but age plays a role, Lomax said. From seventh grade on up, the number of students using alcohol steadily rises, he said.
Along with police compliance checks, the SAPCA works with parents and teenagers, educating them on the dangers of underage drinking. Alcohol use leads to health problems and risky behavior, Lomax said.
Still, its an uphill battle, he said.
I would love that we could eradicate it, but what were really striving for is reducing [underage drinking] to the smallest number we can, Lomax said. I would love if we could, but, you know, there is always going to be somebody who is going to break a law, so you cant totally be successful. You have to be as successful as possible.