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Liquor Stings: Fail & Jail

November 15, 2012, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

Liquor Stings: Fail & Jail
ABERDEEN, SD -

Cities across KELOLAND have been trying to crack down on alcohol sales to minors. And after years of failed attempts, Aberdeen is seeing some success.

"If they don't have an ID with them, they're not going to get served. It's that plain and simple," Melissa Erlenbusch said.

It's a strict policy Erlenbusch says is in place at Ward Plaza, the bar she manages in downtown Aberdeen. And if anyone's underage and trying to get alcohol, she insists they won't get it there.

"That's an expectation we have because our employees know that if we fail a sting, they're not going to be employed anymore," Erlenbusch said. "It's just a given."

But being denied alcohol as a minor hasn't historically been a given around town.

"It was just horrible. I mean, I was confident that on any given night, any minor in this town could walk into a place and come out with alcohol," City Attorney Adam Altman said.

Altman started working with police on liquor stings a handful of years ago. He calls initial results appalling.

"They were failing left and right," Altman said.

Day or night, store or bar, it didn't seem to matter and, Altman says, the minors weren't even going in with fake driver’s licenses.

"Never," Altman said. "Everybody uses their state-issued driver’s license. Typically it's their South Dakota driver’s license. Although I had one person that was Iowa, but it was a legitimate Iowa state driver’s license. And they sell anyway."

At the Ward Plaza, Erlenbusch is proud of her establishment's passing record. She says it can mean long hours on her part, but she works with staff to make sure they're trained and obeying the rules.

"We just need to assure ourselves that we're doing things right," Erlenbusch said.

But not all businesses can boast that same record. After the 2007 increase in stings, passing rates didn't improve much. So, city leaders have been working on ways to stop the sale of alcohol to minors.

Altman says he first started cracking down harder on business owners. Despite owners cracking down on employees, the city still didn’t see results.

Altman says servers or clerks lost jobs for selling to someone underage. Those who didn't fail were rewarded, but businesses still failed stings. So, the city started directing more attention toward the clerks and servers.

"I just started asking the judge, can we start imposing some jail time because nothing else is working," Altman said.

That's when the city started seeing results. During its latest sting, every business passed.

As someone working in the industry, Erlenbusch says there's plenty of blame to go around when a minor gets a drink and she wants accountability to fall on all involved from the minor up to the liquor license holder.

"I hold myself accountable to that as well. I mean, if it were I that failed a sting, I would expect not to have a job," Erlenbusch said.

And as it works to make sure businesses within its limits comply, the city says there are enforcement measures to keep all parties in check. It's only a sting away from seeing if those measures are still working.

The city takes nearly $20,000 a year from video lottery placement fees and designates it toward the fight on underage drinking. That goes toward education and enforcement efforts, including the liquor stings.

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