She’s a high school senior by day, sort of a secret agent by night. We’re not telling you her name because she’s working undercover for the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control.
“I don't enjoy getting people in trouble. But I do enjoy doing this,” says the blonde haired 18 year old. She’s one of the few minors who can actually order a drink in front of law enforcement and not worry about it.
“They are very special people,” says Agent Carlos Grajeda, Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Specialist. He says it takes a certain kind of teenager, calm and confident, to pull this off.
“If they can't make it, they feel uncomfortable because either they are too bashful or just don't feel comfortable going into bars, then it's not going to work.”
But with a year under her belt, this underage agent is cool under pressure as we found out when we tagged along during recent compliance checks of area businesses.
It’s prom season. So, tonight’s mission is a little different. Instead of trying to buy alcohol in stores or clubs, she’s visiting hotels and putting room service to the test.
When we arrive at the first hotel, she flips through the room service menu and then picks up the phone.
Underage Agent: “I wanted to get an order of the blackened chicken Alfredo. And do you have a bottle of white Zinfandel?”
We wait in the bathroom with Agent Grajeda until the order arrives.
Attendant: “One glass is okay?”
Underage Agent: “Yeah.”
Attendant: “Can I please see your ID?”
The attendant does what he’s supposed to do. But seeing she’s underage asks if someone over 21 in the room can sign for the bill.
Attendant: “They can sign the check. Over 21?”
Underage Agent: “No, I mean it’s just me.”
The underage buyers are trained to keep chat to a minimum. The attendant ends up taking the wine with him, unaware he just passed a test.
"They have that choice they’re going to have to make whether or not they're going to leave the alcohol behind,” says Grajeda.
It’s a struggle for some attendants as we find out when we move on to the next hotel.
Underage Agent: “I was born in '92.”
Attendant: “I know. You're 18 years old."
One employee repeatedly apologizes for doing the right thing.
Attendant: “You can't drink alcohol. Sorry. You can't. Because you're just 18 years old."
Others fail the test entirely.
Underage Agent: “Do you need an ID?”
Attendant: “Yeah, please just tell me. I figure you're over 21, right?"
The attendant, at the third hotel we test, takes her ID. It clearly shows she’s underage. In Maryland all minors have vertical licenses.
The attendant even mentions recent compliance checks.
Attendant: "I have to tell because there's a lot of inspectors in town.”
Underage Agent: “Oh, are there?”
But he still leaves the wine behind telling the buyer she’s cleared for the rest of the night.
Attendant: “They don't need to always ask you for ID.”
That’s when Agent Grajeda and the police officer waiting outside jump into action. At first the employee says he couldn’t see the ID because he didn’t have his glasses on.
Police Officer: “You told her if she was going to call downstairs for alcohol to tell the server that she was already checked because you knew she was underage.”
It’s a costly mistake.
Police Officer: “This citation is for selling alcohol to a minor. Ok?”
The man faces a thousand dollar fine and possible jail time. The hotel also gets a citation.
Police Officer: “All excuses aside you can't sell alcohol to a kid.”
Attendant: “I know that.”
Agent Grajeda says on average he finds one in four businesses will sell to the minor. That’s much less than just two years ago when Liquor Control started these compliance checks with police.
“We have to go out and do 600 checks a year. There’s 900 plus licensees and essentially we're always out there,” Grajeda tells us.
The underage volunteer will likely testify about what happened this night. She hopes to continue working undercover until she turns 19, the cut off age.
“I like to do what I can,” she says.
The county has five underage buyers right now. They do get paid.
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