The Howard County Police Department is going to get tough on people who sell alcohol to minors.
Beginning Feb. 1, anyone who sells alcohol to minors will be charged with a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to two years' imprisonment, Police Chief James N. Robey told the Liquor Board yesterday.
That was the policy instituted by the previous police chief, he said, but members of the Howard County Beverage Association asked him to rescind it shortly after he took command of the department in 1991.
The beverage association also asked that warnings rather than a criminal summons be given to first-time violators, Chief Robey said. He said he agreed to "self-policing" because county beverage establishments were in almost total compliance with the law.
However, self-policing has been a total failure, Chief Robey said. Since July, 14 establishments have sold alcoholic beverages to underage police cadets.
"This is totally unacceptable and indicates a significant lack of support for my efforts to be more tolerant," Chief Robey said. He said he discussed the new policy with Thomas M. Meachum, attorney for the beverage association, and that Mr. Meachum supported him.
The chief said he had earlier warned beverage association members that if inspections revealed an increase in the number of violations, he would return to a policy of strict enforcement.
"I've been receiving tremendous criticism -- and rightfully so -- from parents, PTAs and [Mothers Against Drunk Drivers] because of the increased sales to minors," the chief said.
Most of the five-member Liquor Board welcomed the new policy.
Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, vigorously opposed it, saying it is liquor store owners and not the sales clerks who should suffer penalties as a result of selling liquor to minors.
Many of the clerks are young people earning a minimum wage, Ms. Pendergrass said. Charging them with a criminal offense may ruin their lives, she said, adding, "We're putting the emphasis in the wrong place."
Other board members disagreed.
They said both the employee selling alcohol to minors and the owner of the liquor establishment should suffer.
"This is the right policy," said Paul R. Farragut, D-4th. "We do need to get tough here."
The punishment recently meted out to a Jessup bar -- a $300 fine and a seven-day license suspension for twice selling alcohol to underage police cadets in two months -- should serve notice that the board intends to get tough with owners, said board Chairman Darrel Drown, R-2nd. The fact that the same clerk sold alcohol to the cadets weighed heavily in board members' support for the chief's position.
"We don't want several people killed and then say we should have been tougher," said board member C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd.
Mr. Drown agreed. "Basically, we're saying we hold the employer and the employee accountable," he said. To do otherwise could lead to serious consequences, he said.
Criminal prosecution of people who sell to minors accidentally with no intention of committing a crime will be an obvious hardship, Mr. Meachum said.
"But if they are not taking their responsibilities as seriously as they should, then this is the appropriate way," he said. "There are too many harmful public ramifications for young people under the influence."
Mr. Meachum said the reason owners had asked for less stringent enforcement was to lift the specter of criminal prosecution from employees who make a first-time mistake in selling to minors.