Underage and undercover

University students work as alcohol compliance shoppers for Minneapolis police

When Sarah orders a drink at a bar, she hopes they refuse to serve her. Serving her means paperwork. It also means that someone could go to jail.

Sarah , a 20-year-old sociology of law, criminology and deviance major, works for the Minneapolis Police Department’s liquor licensing division performing youth alcohol compliance checks.

Due to the inconspicuous nature of her job, her last name couldn’t be mentioned in this story.

The liquor licensing division employs between 30 and 60 underage shoppers like Sarah to pose as patrons at Minneapolis establishments that sell alcohol. They hit about 400 of the more than 700 businesses last year, and are hoping to reach 500 this year, Minneapolis Police Officer Tom Hendrickson said.

The department has utilized underage shoppers for 11 years to keep tabs on businesses and make sure they are complying with liquor laws.

All the shoppers must be between 18 and 20 years old, and are largely students, Hendrickson said. Sometimes in groups and sometimes solo, they enter an establishment and attempt to purchase alcohol. If they are asked their age, they can’t lie. If they are asked for identification, they can’t present a fake driver’s license.

“We’re not out there to trick them,” Sgt. Peter Ritschel said. “If they do their job, they’re going to catch our shoppers.”

If the shoppers are refused service, an undercover officer that has been lurking covertly in eyeshot will emerge with congratulations for the store owner.

Hendrickson said he has heard of businesses giving an employee who passes the compliance check as much as a $500 reward.

If the seller fails the compliance check, however, the aftermath can be much more daunting for both the employee and the business.

The first time a business fails, Hendrickson said, it faces an administrative citation that comes with a $500 fine. The employee who sold the alcohol can be charged with a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum $3,000 fine and one year in jail, but Hendrickson said first-time offenders don’t generally receive such a severe sentence.

Since Sarah started working as an underage shopper in mid-June, she has already had seven establishments sell to her, she said. Some even knew she was not 21 years old.

“I’ve had them ask me for my I.D., look at it, and still serve me,” she said.

The second time a business fails a compliance check means a $1,000 fine, Ritschel said.

“People fail the second time more than they should,” he said.

If a business fails a third time, it risks losing its liquor license. If it’s not revoked, the city fines it $2,000 and it has to participate in a compliance review hearing that helps establish a written plan to help the business pass the next check, Hendrickson said.

The outcome of the plan could mean even more expenses, such as additional security or surveillance equipment, he said.

If the license is revoked, the business won’t be able to reapply for a new one for five years, but “it usually doesn’t get that far,” Ritschel said.

Sarah said she does occasionally feel remorse for the unsuspecting sellers she has busted, but her job has to be done.

“When you’re working in an establishment that provides alcohol, you need to be aware of who you’re serving to and pay attention,” Sarah said. “You can’t just go through the motions.”