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April 27, 2012 09:55 PM

Underage Undercover

Sioux Falls, SD

Just days before Sioux Falls teenagers head to prom, local liquor stores are still selling beer to minors.

Thursday night, Sioux Falls Police carried out a liquor sting in the city to see if any businesses would sell beer to an 18-year-old high school senior.

The assignment is simple: see if a teenager can walk into any given store in Sioux Falls and buy alcohol, but the goal of the monthly liquor stings is serious.

The Sioux Falls Police Department does regular compliance checks to make sure stores aren't selling beer to underage kids, and make sure teens know it's not going to be easy to get their hands on alcohol.

"We try and find kids that are frankly just barely over 18," Sioux Falls Police Chief Doug Barthel said.

The stings start out with a local teen riding with two undercover detectives.  They go from store to store to see if clerks are checking IDs. When KELOLAND News rode along, police checked 23 stores.

It starts out with the detectives giving the teen cash to buy beer. The first place that was tested by the undercover operation failed.

The clerk at the Shop-N-Cart on North Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls sold beer to the 18 year old even though he checked his legal state-issued ID that showed he was not 21.

The clerk told the high school senior he was barely old enough and sold him alcohol.

Shop-N-Cart owner Dave Grevlos said the clerk told him that he was looking to see if the teen was old enough to buy tobacco. Grevlos fired the clerk immediately.

"In this case, his excuse was he was tired, shouldn't have been at work, he has another job. My comment was you could us that machine when you're sleeping. It's so easy. There is no excuse. I don't even want to talk to him after that," Grevlos said.

The machine Grevlos is talking about is a $1,200 device he bought for all of his stores.

"This is a machine that checks the legality of purchasing alcohol and tobacco," Grevlos said as he showed off the machine.

If a clerk sticks an ID in the machine, it will tell them whether they are 18 or 21. Grevlos says there is no excuse for selling to minors.

"The machine is right there. All he had to do was stick it in there and it would have given him a red light and the sale doesn't even get made. He didn't even take the time to use the machine. How do you fix that? You can't,” Grevlos said.

Other stores that were part of the compliance check have similar computer systems. At the Lewis Drug Store on 41st Street and Minnesota Avenue, the clerk punched in the teen's birth date and it told them not to make the sale.

"They put a lot of different things in place but sometimes it all comes down to the human, the person that's behind the register. No matter what the machine or the license tells them, if they ultimately decide they want to sell anyway, they certainly can.  And unfortunately, we still see that," Barthel said.

Barthel says the department started conducting compliance checks more than 15 years ago and they have seen the numbers of stores selling to minors go down. They don't try and trick the clerks into selling; they just want to make sure the clerks are doing their jobs.

"Our goal isn't to try and arrest people and catch them in the act and take people to jail. Our goal is to get the stores and the employees to be vigilant about checking IDs," Barthel said.

The second store that failed during the sting was Skyway Liquor on Minnesota Avenue. The clerk still sold the beer to the teen even though she checked his ID.

"They use their own driver's license.  If you know much about a driver's license, it's got red across the top where anyone who is under 21 that's how they are.  It's pretty clear and pretty easy," Barthel said.

The manager of Skyway Liquor didn't want to do an on-camera interview but did talk to KELOLAND News inside. She said the clerk misread the ID and because of that, the clerk was fired on the spot for failing the sting.

"She said, 'Well, I thought it said '83 and not '93.'  But if it's a South Dakota ID, there's not any reason because it's red if it's old so there isn't any way you should fail a sting," the manager of Skyway Liquor said.

But that's also why Sioux Falls Police still do compliance checks every month because no matter how many safeguards are in place, investigators still want to know who is selling alcohol to kids.

"But if the word gets out that here's a good store you can go to and buy when you're underage, or even if you look close because they don't check IDs, it doesn't take long and pretty soon they become a big source for the alcohol," Barthel said.

That's what the police don't want and why every month they use an undercover teen to do a simple assignment to accomplish a serious goal of keeping kids away from alcohol.

"Our goal is to get 100 percent compliance. We really aren't out there trying to trick these folks," Barthel said.

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