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Sheriff’s department targets teen drinkers

by Merrie Leininger, staff writer

Douglas County teen-agers have a drinking problem and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office needs everyone’s help to stop it.

“Parents are allowing parties to happen. Our deputies are going to numerous parties every weekend. The parents buy the alcohol and provide a place for the party because they think if they are there, it is better,” Sheriff Ron Pierini said. “What parents don’t think about is eventually those kids leave their house and get in a car and drive. I don’t know if they understand the liability if one of those kids gets into an accident. They successfully could be sued for that.”

Pierini said if deputies come into contact with adults buying alcohol for minors, they will be arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. East Fork Justice Jim EnEarl said the offense is a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000.

EnEarl also said a first offense for underage drinking in Justice Court is usually treated as an infraction by the District Attorney’s office. The infraction carries no jail time and a maximum fine of $500.

The second offense generally is considered a misdemeanor and carries a maximum sentence of up to six months and a $1,000 fine.

The Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is helping the DCSO by supplying a $12,000 grant that pays officers to do “sting” operations to find businesses that sell alcohol to underage people.

Deputy Ron Michitarian and Sgt. David Aymami have hired an undercover teen-ager to buy alcohol to identify those businesses that need more education on the subject. Michitarian said the stings are important because underage drinking is a big problem in the county.

“Any time of the day, we come across kids who are drunk or drinking. We find kids during the day, at night, at school and at home,” Michitarian said.

Seven out of eight Douglas High School students asked Thursday said they could easily get alcohol if they wanted to.

Many students asked not to be named, but said there are always adults around who will buy alcohol for young people.

“If you know the right people, neighbors who are 21, or some kids have fake IDs,” said one senior football player. “I don’t think it is a big problem. The majority of people aren’t stupid. They know they shouldn’t drive. Parents will let them stay the night at their house. It is kind of like a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of thing.”

Sophomore Michele Cofano said she doesn’t drink, but the majority of students at the school do and she thinks it is a problem.

“I know people who drink a lot. I think that’s wrong. I don’t think you can really stop it because whatever you do, they will still find a way to drink,” Michele said.

Jaclyn Campbell, a senior, said most students have fake IDs.

“A lot just go to the stores and get older people outside the store to buy it. I don’t think it is anything bad, it is just something that goes on in high school,” she said.

Deputy Michitarian said during the stings, the officers instruct the minor to dress like they do everyday, and they aren’t allowed to wear glasses or anything that will make them look older. Then they go in and grab whatever they want. When they are asked their age, they have to be honest. If they are asked for an identification card, they have to give it to the clerk.

The officers have issued several citations to businesses in Douglas County, Michitarian said. They usually do about 15-20 stings a night and have hit some businesses more than once already.

“Every time I have gone out, we cited at least one person,” said Investigator Mark Munoz. “We have had one repeat. One of the stores we were really impressed with was the Johnson Lane Store. If their clerk goes through the sting and doesn’t sell to the minor, the owners give that clerk a $50 bonus.”

The deputies go into the store and explain to the clerk that they passed or failed a DCSO test and either congratulate them or explain they face fines for breaking the law. The owner of the store is also sent a letter explaining what happened when the DCSO checked up on their store. Pierini, who sits on the liquor board with the county commissioners, said he has never seen a liquor license revoked for selling alcohol to a minor, but a business could, under county ordinance, lose the right to operate if repeatedly cited for selling to minors.

“If we have a problem with a certain business, we have the power to close the business down,” Pierini said. “It has to be pretty blatant. We try to do education and teach them about false IDs.”

“We are at the point in the grant were there are no more warnings. If a clerk still sells to them when they say they are not 21 and don’t have ID, they could face additional enforcement action, up to arrest,” Michitarian said.

Pierini said the department can do little if the clerk had a reason to believe the minor’s fake ID was real.

“Our biggest problem has been computer-generated fake IDs because it looks real as it possibly can,” Pierini said.

Because the clerks have no way to double check the ID, police sometimes will ask people coming out of a store with liquor to see their ID.

“A lot of IDs are changed just for their age, and their address and picture are the same. We are trying to stop that activity. At the Lake, for the big casinos, it’s not uncommon for them to see 20 (falsified IDs) a night. We are putting pressure on the young people up there to let them know they won’t get away with it,” Pierini said.

He said the department can’t stop all underage drinking, however, without help from the government. He thinks the Legislature should outlaw the Internet sites that provide fake IDs.

Sgt. Larry Paul from the DCSO helps store clerks and bartenders understand the identifying elements of a fake ID.

“I’ve done some training where we go in and show them what a good ID looks like and let them know we’re here to give our support,” Paul said.

He said the clerks can also use manuals that describe, in detail what every state license looks like. Now, some states, such as California, have a strip on the back of the ID like a credit card. The department has a machine that they swipe the card through to determine if it is a valid ID card.

Each state has marks of authenticity, Paul said, for instance, some states have a hologram state seal on the back of the license or biographical information about that person in the license number.

“We let them know what to look for. We let them know they have the right to refuse service if they think the identification is fake. Or they can call the sheriff’s office. If they are legitimate, they will stay. If not, they will boogie out the door, then guess what? The clerk still has the ID card,” Pierini said.