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    Police target underage drinking

    A sting finds 14 servers not checking the identification of an undercover teen, a recipe for disaster, police say.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001

    LARGO -- Police can see the tragedy unfold in their minds.

    A restaurant is busy. Four spring-breakers order food and drinks, then more drinks. The waiter is busy and doesn't check IDs. The alcohol flows.

    The spring-breakers get in their car to drive back to their hotel. The driver is unfamiliar with the rental car. They can't find the hotel. They don't know the area, so the quirks of local roads are foreign to them.

    Plus they are drunk.

    If the cliche holds and there is an accident waiting to happen, this is it.

    "All these things are kind of a recipe for disaster," said Largo police Capt. John Carroll.

    Which is why Largo police are testing local businesses to ensure they are checking IDs. They plan on sending undercover teens into local restaurants, pubs and convenience stores throughout spring break and into summer, when school vacation begins and graduation parties are common.

    The first undercover operation last weekend resulted in a mixed report card for Largo merchants: Although employees at 18 businesses checked the undercover 17-year-old girl's ID and refused to serve her alcohol, 14 businesses did serve her.

    "It's disturbing that 14 waitresses or waiters served this underage person," Carroll said. "But we're happy that better than 50 percent carded her. Obviously, we're trying to avoid a tragedy." The employee who served the teen at each business was given a notice to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge. The business also will be referred to the state Department of Alcohol, Beverages and Tobacco.

    Sgt. Howard Crosby said many of the restaurants were swamped with patrons, which may cause some staff members to overlook checking IDs.

    "It seemed like they were just busy and not paying attention," he said.

    But the cost of not paying attention can be severe for servers. Though most receive probation or a fine, they can be sentenced to up to 60 days in jail. And state regulators can pull a business' license, Crosby said.

    Three workers in last weekend's sting served the teen alcohol even after they looked at her ID. Crosby said he thinks those employees may have just asked for the ID for show, then didn't even check the birthday.

    "I don't think they're paying attention to it," he said.

    But police officials say the word is going around that more stings are on the way, which they hope will prompt employees to be more careful. They also hope business owners and managers will tell their employees to card patrons, which will make Largo a safer place for spring break.

    "I think it's definitely put everybody on notice," Crosby said.

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