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New Carroll County program aims to deter underage drinking by targeting servers who sell alcohol to minors

From left, Liquor Board Chair Dave Brauning, State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, and Senior Liquor Inspector Keith Benfer came to the Board of County Commissioners to present the Diversion Program on Thursday. Under the program, servers who sell alcohol to minors may be prosecuted criminally or undergo an educational program.
From left, Liquor Board Chair Dave Brauning, State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, and Senior Liquor Inspector Keith Benfer came to the Board of County Commissioners to present the Diversion Program on Thursday. Under the program, servers who sell alcohol to minors may be prosecuted criminally or undergo an educational program.(Mary Grace Keller)

In an effort to prevent underage drinking, the Carroll County Office of the State’s Attorney and the county Liquor Board teamed up to form a program they say could deter servers from giving alcohol to underage customers.

The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved the Diversion Program, which will put the onus on servers, not just business owners, to prevent underage drinking. If a server, clerk, or bartender is accused of serving or selling alcohol to an underage person, their case will be referred by the Board of License Commissioners — more commonly known as the Liquor Board — to the State’s Attorney for possible criminal prosecution. The State’s Attorney’s Office will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to pursue criminal charges against the individual or put them through an educational Diversion Program in lieu of prosecution.

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State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo noted in an interview that the cited server would be given a notice by the liquor inspector to apply to the Diversion Program, which is optional, or possibly face criminal charges. DeLeonardo’s office would then review the application and decide whether it is appropriate to put that person through the program.

If the State’s Attorney’s Office chooses not to pursue charges and accepts the application for the Diversion Program, the offender will be referred to Catherine’s Cause or another comparable education program, where they will hear victim impact statements from those affected by drunken driving, DeLeonardo said.

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This change will affect any establishment with a liquor license, of which there are about 155 in Carroll, according to Keith Benfer, senior liquor inspector.

The idea for the Diversion Program was born of a recent decline in compliance. Benfer said age compliance checks began about six years ago and the number of businesses selling alcohol to minors has increased recently. Outside the meeting, Benfer said the number of businesses in compliance stood at about 87% in 2014, rose to 95% in 2017, and fell to 89% in 2019.

To conduct a compliance check, the Liquor Board sends an underage volunteer into an establishment to attempt to buy alcohol, according to Benfer.

After looking at the compliance statistics, Benfer said that he, DeLeonardo and Deputy State’s Attorney Ned Coyne put their heads together to come up with the idea for the Diversion Program.

“We have been concerned to find a way to make the seller — the actual seller, or server — somewhat responsible for making that sale to an underage minor,” said Dave Brauning, Liquor Board chair.

The holders of liquor licenses and business owners currently bear the consequences if a minor is served in their establishment. Previously, not all servers who provided alcohol to an underage person would have been referred to the state’s attorney for possible prosecution, according to DeLeonardo.

If a minor is sold alcohol, the person who holds the liquor license and the establishment are brought before the Liquor Board for the violation, according to Brauning. The Liquor Board can fine them up to $2,000 and/or suspend their license.

At worst, a server who gives alcohol to a minor is fired and finds a job somewhere else, Benfer said.

“My opinion is the servers don’t care,” Benfer told the commissioners. “So we were trying to find something that would hold the servers responsible.”

Through their compliance checks, the Liquor Board encountered servers providing alcohol without checking identification, or checking ID and still providing alcohol knowing the customer is a minor, Brauning told the commissioners.

Sending a message

DeLeonardo told the commissioners the Diversion Program’s goal is to stop the sale of alcohol to minors and support the business community.

He said the intent is not to “go after” servers who were tricked by customers with fake IDs, but to target those who choose not to check IDs or do check them and serve alcohol regardless of the customer’s age.

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“We’re not looking to use a sledgehammer to the situation, but I think it is a nice balance to provide some accountability,” DeLeonardo said.

Benfer said the business owners he spoke to said they want the responsibility to be on the servers as well. Brauning noted a public hearing was held about two months ago to introduce the idea to local business owners. He said the eight to 10 owners who attended unanimously supported the idea.

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he initially opposed the Diversion Program until he read the proposal more closely.

He noted many servers are young people without experience and his fear was they would immediately be prosecuted. Wantz said he liked the alternative of educating servers about the dangers of drunken driving instead of immediately pursuing criminal charges.

“I think it sends a positive message,” Wantz said.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said he viewed the Diversion Program as a “common sense” approach that is about enforcing existing laws rather than adding regulations.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said he liked the idea of servers — not just business owners — having some “skin in the game.”

The Diversion Program is scheduled to become effective in the spring, Benfer said in an interview, after the Liquor Board has notified liquor license holders of the change.

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