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Time To Go Easy On Bars That Serve Teens?

Jim Graham, the D.C. council member whose district includes the watering holes of Adams Morgan and U Street, has long been the city's tough guy on underage drinking. When clubs get nabbed for serving minors, Graham is often first on the scene, shining the light of publicity on the offenders and calling for the nightspots to be shut down.

But now Graham is the leader of a move to lighten penalties for establishments caught serving underage customers. Instead of being slapped with a $1,000 fine and a two-day suspension of their liquor licenses for a first offense, bars that serve kids would only get a warning the first time. The council tentatively approved the change at its last meeting and is set to make a final decision tomorrow.

The District's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is appalled by the move to ease penalties. "This change would give the District of Columbia one of the lightest penalties for this type of offense" in the nation, board chairman Peter Feather wrote in a letter urging the council to back off from the proposed change. "This dramatic change in policy sends the wrong message regarding the District's willingness to protect its youth from the potential dangers of alcohol." Warnings, the board said, are not enough.

Graham says the impetus for the lighter penalties was a "request that came from the bars," but he quickly adds that "I thought a lot about this and I concluded that this is the right thing to do. I have been out there on this issue. We have sent the message that we are not going to tolerate service to minors."

But Graham says he was moved by testimony at public hearings from bar owners and workers who made it clear that many of the cases in which establishments were shut down resulted from "a distracted employee or an employee who didn't understand the importance of checking ID. These were not cases of places that just didn't care."

Those bars, the ones known on the street as being friendly to underage drinkers, should still have the book thrown at them--and would, Graham says, because those are the repeat offenders. He just doesn't want "responsible, respectable places like Lauriol Plaza or Martin's to be shut down just because of one mistake that doesn't indicate any bigger problem."

Graham says his plan to ease the penalties would be a one-year experiment, and if the ABC board isn't happy with how things are going at that point, the board would be empowered to return to the stricter rules, without needing any vote by the council.

I don't have much love for zero tolerance rules of any kind, but anyone who knows the bar scene knows that there are always places that make a practice of looking the other way when it comes to underage drinking. Those are indeed the places the law should be concerned with, not some waiter at an otherwise adult establishment who gets bamboozled by a good fake ID.

As long as the city's penalties on repeat offenders remain tough enough to serve as a powerful disincentive, and as long as the District keeps sending out undercover teens to test compliance, the taxpayers are well-served. The main problem here is not whether a 20-year-old is mistakenly served a couple of beers; rather, the problem is those club owners that cater to teens and then release dozens of blasted kids onto the sidewalks to drive home or cause a ruckus on neighborhood streets.

The real solution is not to tinker with the penalties levied on bars, but to lower the drinking age to a more reasonable 18 or 19, and, at the same time, to raise the driving age to at least that level.

By Marc Fisher |  December 15, 2008; 8:28 AM ET
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I would much rather have kids drinking in bars, where they can be monitored at least somewhat, than in the woods, or a park, or the basement of their friends' house when the parents are away.

True, the way to do that is to change the drinking age, not the penalties. But at least it's thinking in the right direction.

Posted by: ah___ | December 15, 2008 10:39 AM

I agree that there should be a better linkage between age of driving and age of drinking. And this from the father of a 17 year old. The cultural reality has to be recognized and dealt with.

But I really came over to wish you Happy Birthday as per instructions from Joel Achenbach. 'Cause, you know, we have been trained to mindlessly do his bidding. So Happy Birthday and Many Felicitous Returns of the Day

(Perhaps in a few weeks you can return the favor.)

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 15, 2008 10:44 AM

Marc, I agree that enforcement should not focus on the occasional 20 year old or the exceptionally good fake ID.

And Happy Birthday from the Achenblog.

Posted by: Raysmom | December 15, 2008 10:52 AM

Wow. I guess Jim Graham has tasted the same Koolaid that was served to a bunch of college presidents who want four times as much drinking on their campuses.

Including, of course, Duke (home of the hard-partying men's lacrosse team).

Posted by: bs2004 | December 15, 2008 12:30 PM

Wow. This suggestion actually makes sense. I didn't realize Jim Graham could make a suggestion that made sense.

Even the most conscientious of bar owners will occasionally slip up and allow an underage drinker in. Fake IDs are very good these days, a lot of people are good at dressing up to look older, etc.

If you shut a bar down for 2 days for even innocent mistakes everyone suffers. It's not just the bar owner... it's the waiters, the bus boys, etc. They lose two days work.

Again, I'm a bit shocked to hear this common sense coming from Graham.

Posted by: HillMan | December 15, 2008 12:46 PM

Happy Birthday, Marc! Joel mentioned it in the A-blog.

I couldn't even say the number without major stuttering. I hated the enevitable. AARP be damned.

But it gets easier. Plus the little things in life aren't as much a bother. Hopefully, you are wiser and still in good physical shape so this decade will be very good! And remember, my dad is 90 so you may have another 40 years or so to go. :-)

BTW, I was in DC this past weekend...saw a CVS...and thought of you. We all know how you feel about CVS. :-)

Posted by: Windy3 | December 15, 2008 12:51 PM

Hey Marc,

I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to speak to you at the mega-boodle-porching-hour, but now Joel has gone and spilled the beans so must toss confetti and toot horn for your birthday, today!

It seems to me that the age to drive, to drink, to vote and to enlist should all be the same. Eighteen sounds about right to me. All very adult responsibilities which the future of our Country (our children) seem to want to embrace; well, three out of four, anyway....


Posted by: VintageLady | December 15, 2008 1:15 PM

Goodness gracious, thanks to all of you who wander through this thicket even as you frolic among the juicy buds of the Achenwoods. Everyone keeps asking me how it feels to blunder past the half century mark, and all I can say is that there is an awesome power to the mysteries and beauties of denial. I can, however, heartily recommend the brussel sprouts and bacon side dish at Michel Richard Central, where I just had the celebratory lunch with The Lovely Wife.

Posted by: Fisher-TWP | December 15, 2008 1:58 PM

Happy 50th, Marc.

I haven't been to Central yet, Jean-Jacques and Michel treat me so well at Citronelle - even when I eat at the bar - that I haven't managed to get over there yet.

But I will, and I'll take your advice on the 'sprouts.

I've always felt that if you're old enough to serve your country and die for it, you're old enough to have a drink while pondering that idea.

I'm also OK with provisional driver's licences at 16 (with restrictions for hours of operation and passengers), and full licensing at 18.

Now, to the question of sanctions against establishments that any establishments that serve alcohol to an underage patron, I agree with the lessened penalties, but I think that if there were a penalty against said patron, say something having to do with suspension of driver's license privilages, that may reduce temptation and incentive for underage folks to seek alcohol in public bars and resturants.

Just at thought, sir.


Posted by: -bc- | December 15, 2008 7:58 PM

Suspending driving priv's doesn't work. People go ahead and drive without the license. And nothing happens when they get caught doing that too.

Touchy subject about teen drinkers. Part of me agrees that if the kids are old enough to go to war and die for our country then they should be able to have a drink or ten when they want to.

Another part of me sees the young lady next door crying because her husband and two kids were killed by a drunk driver. A drunk driver who had been convicted three times in two years and had his license suspended.

I think we can consider a little give and take on this.

(1) lower the drinking age to 18, like you said.
(2) Mandatory 1 year minimum with no work release for 1st offense drving under the influence. # 2 is harsh. Tell it to the lady next door.

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 16, 2008 8:46 AM

Jim Graham reads the election results.

And he sees what happened to Carol.

Decides it's time to end some of the Grahamstanding and make nice to Andrew Kline.

No need to go through any unncessary unpleasantness.

Posted by: observer9 | December 16, 2008 6:17 PM

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