This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Bar and restaurant employees in Utah could face higher fines and tougher penalties if they are caught serving liquor to minors on more than one occasion.
That's just one measure the state liquor commission discussed Tuesday to help reduce Utah's already low underage drinking statistics.
"Many licensees spend time training and doing everything they can to comply with the laws, particularly when it comes to sales to minors, which is one of our biggest concerns," said commission chairman David Gladwell. "Increasing the upper penalties, so that employees feel a bit of that sting, could help employers."
In Utah, sale to minors is considered a serious violation for a restaurant or bar, punishable by a 5- to 30-day license suspension or a fine between $500 and $3,000, or both. Employees also face fines between $300 and $900, depending on the jurisdiction and the severity of the crime.
Commission members said they understand that anyone can make a mistake, which is why they are considering upping the penalties only if an employee has a second violation.
The commission also is considering stricter employee training requirements for bar and restaurant owners. Before being granted a state liquor license, businesses may be required to show how they plan to avoid sales to minors and over-consumption in their establishment.
The commission will continue to discuss the possible changes at its next meeting, Feb. 24.
Utah continues to have the lowest underage drinking rate in the country. In 2013, only 7 percent of Utah students in sixth through 12th grades had reported using alcohol in the past 30 days, according to statistics from the Parents Empowered annual report. Among 12th-graders, the age group most likely to drink, 30-day alcohol use was 14 percent. The national average is three times that: 41.5 percent among high school seniors.
During the past two years, however, the Utah Department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control has seen more "sale to minor" violations, namely because it has increased the number of undercover visits from law enforcement agents.
In 2012, the Legislature provided funding for four additional agents whose primary responsibility is restaurant liquor compliance. There currently are 19 full-time enforcement agents who monitor nearly 2,000 restaurants and bars for a variety of alcohol compliance issues and are especially focused on service to minors.
Agents try to visit licensed restaurants and bars at least four times each year, significantly more visits than had been done in the past.
With more visits comes more violations. Many establishments that had gone for years without a violation suddenly registered multiple violations on their record. After a third violation, the state can revoke a liquor license, which for a bar or club would put them out of business.
That's something the commission would rather not do. Several members said mitigating circumstances should be considered in every case.
"Businesses are very fearful of a third violation because it would have serious implication to the business," said commission member John T. Nielsen. "Revocation should be rare and limited to those we believe are flaunting the laws."
While some businesses don't seem to care about the laws, many simply don't understand the rules, said DABC attorney Sheila Page, who oversees all the violation cases.
"They are usually small, mom and pop operations," she said, "that get themselves into trouble because they don't know how to operate within the law."