SALT LAKE CITY — Undercover stings show Utah restaurants serving alcohol to minors at an alarming rate, according to a state lawmaker who intends to reverse what he sees as a growing trend.
Of 275 visits the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control made to eateries last year, underage customers were able to get a drink nearly 30 percent of the time, said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem. A visit or sting operation includes two undercover enforcement officers and a "cub" (young person) who order drinks.
In January, restaurants served alcohol to minors 35 times, he said.
"This is not acceptable," Valentine said, adding those violations occurred despite increased enforcement efforts.
In comparison, he said stings at convenience stores and supermarkets resulted in underage customers buying alcohol 10 percent of the time.
Valentine calls it an "amazing and difficult" trend to deal with.
"We need to really be serious about enforcing our liquor laws because we are serving minors in our restaurants and in our taverns and in our bars. We've got to make certain those indications don't continue to happen," he said.
Most of the violations occur because servers don't ask for identification. There were also instances where the cub showed a minor's driver's license and was served, Valentine said.
His bill, SB261, proposes to stiffen the penalties for restaurants caught serving alcohol to minors. A first offense would result in a minimum mandatory $2,500 fine, a second offense $5,000 and a third offense $15,000. Second and third offenses also would carry five- and 14-day suspensions, respectively, of the establishment's state liquor license.
Valentine said the penalties are tough, but the restaurants didn't like the other options he considered, which were to require them to scan everyone under age 35 as bars do or request IDs of every customer who walks through the door.
"We chose to have a heavier enforcement to say, 'You've got to make certain you don't serve minors,'" he said.
The bill requests $130,000 for an additional alcohol enforcement officer in the Utah Attorney General's Office. Valentine said money collected from increased fines would cover the cost.
Catherine Lake, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents restaurants, said the industry generally supports the measure and favors laws that prevent underage drinking and DUI.
"I don't think it's in anyone's interest to have violations of those (laws) that are going on unchecked," she said.
The Senate Business and Labor Committee endorsed the bill but it has yet to be considered by the full Senate.
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