Liquor law violations down in recent years

COLUMBUS – Violations of Ohio’s liquor laws are down by almost half in the past five years at bars and stores, the state’s Liquor Control Commission said.

The commission estimates it will have heard about 1,370 cases by the end of this year, compared with 2,612 in 2002, The Columbus Dispatch reported yesterday.

The panel hears liquor-law cases and decides the penalties for violations, which can lead to fines, suspensions or revocations of bars’ or stores’ licenses.

Most of the cases are sales to underage drinkers, said Mark Anderson, executive director of the commission. Other violations include serving drunken customers, unsanitary conditions and gambling.

Bars and stores are doing a better job now of checking identities, but the drop also may be in part because federal grants for sting operations have dried up, law-enforcement officials said.

State budget cuts also have resulted in fewer operations by the Ohio Investigative Unit, which enforces liquor laws.

When the Franklin County sheriff’s office began conducting stings in 2001, tavern owners became more careful in checking patrons, Chief Deputy Steve Martin said.

“We didn’t just go to mom-and-pop places, we went to the whole gamut of liquor-license establishments,” Martin said.

Concerned business owners installed new technology to force employees to check IDs, such as devices that electronically read driver’s licenses and cash registers that require a birth date be entered before alcohol can be sold, Martin said.

The efforts have paid off, he said.

“I don’t think we get the number of citations that we used to,” Martin said. “When we initially started this, it was almost epidemic. We would go back to some places and they would continue to sell” to minors.

The department uses federal grants to pay officers’ overtime and informants – the underage civilians who try to buy alcohol. But those grants fell from $125,000 in 2001 to $17,900 in 2004. But they increased to $51,000 last year.

Most stings are conducted by the Ohio Investigative Unit, but budget constraints the past few years have hurt its efforts, said Julie Hinds, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

The state has lost 19 of 152 agents and support staff members in the past few years, she said.

The public reported 15 percent more violations to the unit between 2002 and 2006, but it wrote 27 percent fewer citations during that period, Hinds said.

Law-enforcement agencies throughout Ohio wrote slightly more citations during that span. Part of that stems from bars and stores doing a better job, she said.

“The fact is, they’re finding less to cite,” said Phil Craig, executive director of the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, which represents about 700 bars and stores “It’s kind of fundamental: If we decrease the errors, they’re going to cite less.”

Many establishments have instituted the “card everyone” approach, regardless of anyone’s apparent age, Craig said.