When Leslie Sammis’ client was caught selling alcohol to minors at his store, she said the process wasn’t fair.
Sammis, a criminal defense attorney from the Tampa area, represented a client who was the target of a sting operation led by police officers.
The operation utilized investigative aides, or underage student participants, that would come in and try to purchase alcohol to catch cooperating vendors.
When underage aides were sent into her client’s workplace, Sammis said she felt they did not look underage and that police had unfairly targeted her client.
Florida’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (ABT) has an investigative aide program where students between the ages of 14 and 19 are paid to go undercover at different locations, wrote Chelsea Eagle, deputy director of communications at the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, in an email. They are compensated for their time, receiving up to $50 for meals, mileage and other expenses, she said.
Parents have to give permission to allow the students to participate. Participants are supervised by police officers throughout the operation.
Eagle said the ABT has been using the investigative aide program since July 1, 1989 to assist in enforcing underage drinking laws.
She said it has been highly beneficial to identify places that are not following state law. In 2014, 22 licensed sellers were found out of compliance based on 181 surveys conducted in the Gainesville district, which includes Lafayette, Gilchrist, Alachua, Dixie, Levy, Marion, Citrus and Sumter counties.
If a vendor is caught selling alcohol to a student aide, the aide will immediately report back to officers to be debriefed and will prepare a sworn statement of the incident, Eagle said.
According to Florida Statute 562.11, it is unlawful for any person to sell, give, serve, or permit to be served alcoholic beverages to a person under 21 years of age or to permit a person under 21 years of age to consume such beverages on the licensed premises. A person who violates this commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.
The program is offered in 12 cities across the state, including Gainesville.
“[Because] the police get to recruit the young people, they can kind of pick the ones they want, and I don’t know if that’s uniform across the board, or if they just pick young people that look older,” Sammis said. “Then they coach the young people in what to say.”
Although they are briefed before an investigation, the students that apply are only chosen if they meet specific criteria set by the agency, Eagle said.
Sammis said she doesn’t think the sting operations are a good idea because trained underage individuals will not act the same way normal underage individuals would when attempting to purchase alcohol.
“I think it’s a good way for them to issue citations, and it’s a good way for them to generate revenue,” Sammis said. “But it’s not necessarily a good way for them to catch the bad guys. They’re not catching the bad guy. They’re just getting good at figuring out how to go in and make the purchase.”
Gainesville House of Beer, at 19 W. University Ave., has never seemed to have a problem with underage drinking, manager Alex Whelpton said.
Whelpton has been manager for over a year and said the establishment trains its employees to know what to look for when it comes to IDs.
When HOB first opened three years ago, Whelpton said those in charge of licensing and monitoring bars were really strict, so they tried to cover their bases and take extra steps to abide by the law.
He also said their distributors offer a lot of support by providing informational pamphlets every three to four months.
“One that’s really consistent in doing it is Burkhardt. They’re the Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch distributor here in town,” Whelpton said. “They give us a pamphlet and [it] has pictures of all 50 states’ IDs and it gives you little pointers as to what to look at, what’s forged and what’s not, and that’s really useful for us.”
In order to make sure the employees were on the lookout, the bar would stage its own undercover operations.
“Our owners in the past [sent] in a lot people with IDs that aren’t 21 to see if our door guy catches it and to see if bartenders catch it,” Whelpton said.
Training employees to check for IDs isn’t just routine in bars. Some retail stores that sell alcohol also make it a priority.
“We focus our efforts on training and ensuring our associates understand and comply with laws that governs the sale of alcoholic beverages,” said Dwaine Stevens, media and community relations manager for Publix Super Markets, in an email. “We support law enforcement’s efforts to protect our children against underage drinking.”
The use of investigative aides is a law enforcement operation. According to Eagle, the details regarding specific plans such as decisions regarding when or where an operation will take place is confidential in the interest of safety for those involved.
Eagle said although different people might see the program in positive or negative ways, its main goal is ensuring safety in the community.