More than 200 businesses on the Treasure Coast and in Okeechobeen County have been cited for selling alcohol to underage people, according to state records from January 2004 to August 2009. Some of those businesses were repeatedly cited.
“It’s a widespread problem,” Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar said.
A Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers review of five years of citations from the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco show some stores stores have been cited three times — once each year.
Most of the businesses cited are gas stations/convenience stores because of their accessibility, Loar said.
Access of alcoholic beverages to people younger than 21 – the legal drinking age – has been in the news since the Aug. 4 crash that killed three Stuart teens. Crushed beer cans were found at the crash scene of U.S. 1 and Cove Road, where 18-year-olds Christopher Brigilo and Nicholas Coady and 16-year-old Connor Graver died.
The Florida Highway Patrol has yet to release toxicology reports on the three.
Days earlier on Aug. 1, crushed beer cans also were found in the bed of a pickup truck in Key West where three Okeechobee residents — two teens and a 20-year old — died in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer.
Any store that sells to one teen instantly becomes known by other teens, said Lt. Kevin Dietrich of the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office.
“A few of them find out which business sell to kids and it spreads like wildfire,” he said.
Convenience store giant 7-Eleven had a total 12 citations on the Treasure Coast from 2004 to 2009, the most for any company, state records show.
Spokeswoman Margaret Chabris said the company is serious about training employees at corporation-owned stores and those franchises owned by individuals.
It is mandatory for all employees of corporate-owned stores to attend the Come of Age program, where employees learn about the laws for the sales of alcohol and tobacco products and do role playing during which employees practice refusing a sale, she said.
It’s not a requirement for employees of franchise-owned stores. However, if the franchise store is repeatedly cited for selling to minors, it could lose its franchise status, Chabris said.
Despite many of the businesses having a history of citations, their alcohol licenses have not been revoked and the stores have not been closed because they haven’t been cited more than three times in a calendar year, division spokeswoman Alexis Lambert said.
The first time a business is cited, it could be fined up to $1,000 and its alcohol license suspended up to seven days; the second time up to a $3,000 fine and suspended license up to 30 days; the third time in a year, its license can be revoked, she said.
The penalties are not meant to harm business owners, division Lt. Kent Stanton said.
“We don’t want to put stores out of business, but we want them to comply with the law,” he said.
Those penalties aren’t enough, said state officials with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“We need stricter consequences and more enforcement and stronger consequences for those who sell to minors,” said Don Murray, state executive director of MADD.
Dietrich said enforcement is needed as convenience stores stock up with energy drinks that contain alcohol and are popular with teens.
The division works with local law enforcement officers several times a year in undercover stings using minors and issuing citations for business caught selling to them, Stanton said.
When conducting the sting, authorities must use minors who look their age so not to trick store clerks, but to show if someone of average intelligence could decide if the buyer was underage, he said.
“We can’t pick the oldest-looking kid with facial hair,” Stanton said, “and the girls can’t dress provocatively.”
Store clerks making the sale are charged with a misdemeanor and in Indian River and St. Lucie counties, given a notice to appear in court. In Martin County, the seller is arrested and booked in the county jail, said Sgt. Mark Middleton of the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.
Loar said a citation is issued because there is not enough room in the Indian River County Jail.
Jail time is also a possibility for underage people caught with alcohol, said Adam Guzi, supervisor of court for the State’s Attorney Office in Martin County.
Minors are charged with a misdemeanor possession of alcohol and entered into the juvenile justice system and given the option to attend substance abuse counseling, he said.
While teens target convenience stores, most times getting alcohol is as simple as opening the refrigerator or the family’s liquor cabinet, Middleton said.
“At home, when parents open a bottle of wine they don’t keep track of how much they are drinking or how many beer cans are in the fridge,” he said.
Also, some teens craft a plan where they get alcohol from friends who work in convenience stores where alcohol is sold or restaurants where it is served, he said. If one friend works at convenience store or restaurant where alcohol is served, a group of friends would go to that store-only during the hours the teen works. The friend would only sell alcohol to friends in their circle and ask for identification from anyone else, Middleton said.
“This is something that’s been going on and on and on,” he said. “Today’s young people are no different than they were 30 years ago.”
Another technique teens use is to pay someone — a friend or stranger — to buy alcohol for them, Loar said.
“They would stop someone on the street and says here’s $20 or $40 and go buy me a bottle of wine and you can keep whatever is left,” he said.
Now that school is in session both Middleton and Loar said they typically see more attempts by teens to get their hands on alcohol because more house parties are taking place.
“During the summer the teens don’t get together too much because they have summer jobs or they are gone on a family vacation or something,” Middleton said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of alcohol licenses:
St. Lucie County: 543
Martin County: 439
Indian River County: 347
Okeechobee County: 121
Total alcohol licenses on the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee County: 1,450
Number of citations issued to businesses for selling to underage persons from January 2004 to August 2009: 263
Number of most citations issued to a company, 7-Eleven Inc.: 12
Number of citations issued to 29 Publix stores on the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee County: 0
Source: State Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco
Adam Guzi, supervisor of misdemeanor court for the State’s Attorney Office in Martin County:
Minors caught with alcohol are charged with a misdemeanor and entered into the juvenile justice system and given the option to attend substance abuse counseling.
Adults over 18 but under 21 are charged with a misdemeanor and can face up to 60 days in county jail, up to a $500 fine or both. Because the person is an adult they will have a criminal record, Guzi said.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, about 5,000 people a year die from underage drinking.
In 2008, Martin County youths between 12-17 ranked first in the state in admitting alcohol usage, said Tina Levene, program specialist state chapter of MADD.
In July 1984 federal law set 21 as the national minimum legal drinking age, according to MADD. Federal highway construction money were withheld for states that failed to adopt the new law. By 1988, all states had adopted the new drinking age.