Sources sought in underage drinking

A program aims to prosecute clubs and bars when minors die in alcohol-related accidents.

Published August 27, 2006

MIAMI - There's one in every town - a convenience store where ID's aren't necessary, or a shadowy bar whose servers never ask.

In Jacksonville it was Rockets, where Stephanie Walls and her friends were drinking April 4 before their car slammed into a tree. Walls died and the 19-year-old driver was charged with vehicular manslaughter after registering a blood alcohol level of 0.07 percent. (The adult level for impairment of 0.08 percent does not apply to minors.)

In the past, that's where the investigation would end. But now, under a new Florida initiative to track and punish those who sell alcohol to minors, the bar's owners and three employees were arrested and charged with distributing to underage drinkers.

With Illinois and California, Florida is one of a few states trying to enforce longstanding, but largely ignored, laws on liquor sales to minors.

"We saw that it was a critical gap in the enforcement process," said Meg Shannon, spokeswoman for the Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which launched the program in June.

In most states, sworn law enforcement agents, under the umbrella of alcoholic beverage bureaus, are supposed to launch investigations the same way detectives would hunt down a killer. Once they find the source of the alcohol, they can file criminal or administrative charges, which can include fines or loss of liquor licenses.

But in the past, when minors were involved in fatal accidents, the source of that alcohol was not always traced and the business or individual was not held responsible, Shannon said.

It took a grieving California mother, Lynn Goodwin, to change that, launching a program in her state that ultimately bred initiatives in Florida, Illinois, Arizona and Hawaii.

California Highway Patrol troopers had no answers when Goodwin asked where the alcohol came from when her daughter, Casey, was killed by an 18-year-old drunken driver in 2003.

"Everybody was sort of confused by that just because it wasn't the standard," said Goodwin. "I assumed there was a mechanism in place but that local law enforcement wasn't using it or wasn't aware of it, when in fact there wasn't a mechanism."

By 2004, California's attorney general had formed a special task force, with Goodwin helping the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control contact nearly 500 state law enforcement agencies to promote the program.

Since then, TRACE - Target Responsibility for Alcohol Connected Emergencies - has made 28 arrests and launched 135 investigations into 90 deaths, said Judy Matty, a district administrator for ABC.

A majority of incidents involve car accidents, but agents also investigate alcohol-related assaults, rapes and overdoses.

"We've always done these investigations. The difference was, we didn't always hear about (alcohol-related deaths)," Matty said. "And if we didn't hear about it, we couldn't do anything."

Florida has made five arrests in Jacksonville, with cases pending in Tampa and Tallahassee, said Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco Director Steven Hougland.