Aggressive underage drinking stings sounds like a good idea but what if those stings are creating problems that might not otherwise exist? What if it is threatening small businesses in the process?
Some local businesses that sell alcohol might feel they've been targeted by law enforcement with these monthly stings and they might have a point.
The I-Team has uncovered information that shows local alcohol regulators are on track to more than double their revenues from fees and fines this year.
In 2008, Phillip Blaxton opened Skimo's restaurant on Houston Levee Road in unincorporated Shelby County. From the beginning, he made it clear, under-age drinking would not be tolerated. "Early on, when we opened up, we had minors coming in here trying to use fake IDs and stuff, and we had employees who helped us and said they're minors, they don't need to be here. We ran 'em out. Word got out, you can't go to Skimo's and get alcohol if you're a minor because they're going to bust you, run you out or call the police."
But in November of last year, when a new employee failed to check the ID of a customer, who looked much older than 21, Skimo's reputation took a hit. The customer was part of a sting operation conducted by the Shelby County Sheriff's DUI Squad. The sting would ultimately cost Blaxton $2,200 in fines from the Shelby County Beer Board and the state ABC Board.
Despite Skimo's having only failed one sting in five years the sheriff's department kept the restaurant on its radar after November. "They didn't come back in December, but in January they came back and did a sting, we passed. In February they came back and did another sting and we passed. In March they came back, now this is every three weeks they're coming now and I'm starting to feel, okay, wait a minute, am I getting penalized because we made a mistake in 2012 or is this the way it's going to continue from this point forward?"
The March sting produced another citation when another new employee reportedly failed to check the ID of another older looking customer. Blaxton says it was an honest mistake that could cost him more than the $2,200 he paid for the November bust. "That's a payroll basically. And this is going to be another payroll, so basically as an owner, you just don't pay yourself."
The sudden attention got Blaxton wondering if he had been targeted by the sheriff's department but, Blaxton contacted the I-team, and we found something interesting on the rules for checking identification of people ordering drinks in local restaurants.
Under state law, restaurants that serve alcohol don't have to check for ID, if the person appears to be 35 or older. But get this, in Shelby County those state rules don't apply.
Carter Gray, Shelby County Attorney says, "They gotta follow our rules if they hold a permit from us and our rules say you gotta confirm they're not under 21. I guess you could say we're more stringent in that we don't have the 35, but our rules say confirm everybody."
Gray says in unincorporated Shelby County, even if the customer looks 70, the establishment must check their ID before serving them a beer. As for Blaxton's concern about whether the sheriff's department has singled his business out for monthly stings Gray says he has no knowledge of that.
But the I-team did uncover evidence the sheriff's department is having more success with its stings. Records we obtained show the beer board assessed fines totaling $11,900 for all of 2012. Over the first three months of this year the board has assessed businesses fines totaling $6,050.
At that rate, fines for 2013 will be more than $24,000 - more than double last year's fines.
To make sure he's not adding to those totals, Blaxton recently spent another $2,000 on these driver license scanning machines. It displays the customer's age, and tells the restaurant if the ID is valid and when it expires.
Blaxton says he's cautiously optimistic this will ensure Skimo's passes all future stings. "This weekend I had a 42 year old and a 25 year old. The 25 year old looked like he was 18. I carded him, I put it in the machine and I turned around and I looked and I walked back and I'm like, 'you sure this is your ID?' I mean I'm scared to death to be able to, and the rest of the staff, they're scared. They're afraid they're going to get in trouble or going to have to go through the process."
A process that now has this small businessman worried about an honest mistake costing him his business.
The Shelby County Sheriff's DUI Squad initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but later declined. As for Blaxton he goes before the beer board on Thursday. He'll plead his case hoping board members will consider his reputation and the steps he's taken to make sure no kids are being served illegally at Skimo's.