Task force finds no dearth of liquor law violations in Scarborough

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SCARBOROUGH — Liquor lawbreakers beware: there’s a new badge in town.

A task force of police officers from Scarborough, Saco and Old Orchard Beach last week checked 43 businesses that sell or serve liquor in the three towns to see if they were properly checking identification and not selling alcohol to minors.

The operation resulted in 11 citations, including six in Scarborough.

“Budget cuts did away with state liquor enforcement,” Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton said. “Now its up to the municipalities.”

The state eliminated the Bureau of Liquor Enforcement in 2004 as a cost-saving measure, leaving enforcement of liquor laws up to local police departments. The local departments enter into a memo of understanding with the state Department of Liquor Licensing and Compliance, and are in charge of handing out citations to violators of 13 liquor laws, including selling liquor to minors or intoxicated persons.

The additional duties did not come with additional funding and the fees for liquor violations are paid to the state, not to the arresting departments.

“There’s nothing mandating us to do them,” Moulton said, “but we have a duty to make sure there’s compliance.”

After a local police officer issues a citation, it is up to Jeff Austin at the Liquor Licensing Department to review the summons and enter into a consent decree with the accused.

A first-time violation carries a fine of $550 for the business and $190 for the clerk. Each additional violation within a six-month period increases the fine until a vendor reaches a $1,810 limit. At that point, Austin said, it is likely the vendor would appear in court and a suspension or revocation of the license would be decided by a judge.

“This system is working,” Austin said. “Sales to minors are decreasing.”

He cited a reduction from a 40 percent failure rate by vendors when the state managed enforcement, to a 9.8 percent failure rate now that local police are handling enforcement. However, not every town has entered into a memo of understanding with the state and those that have are under no obligation to do the patrols. As a result, statewide compliance with the laws is hard to measure.

The state does provide training for local law enforcement in liquor enforcement. Scarborough Police Officer Shawn Anastasoff went through the eight-hour training, which includes information about the laws and how to conduct the enforcement details. Now he, and his counterparts in Saco and Old Orchard Beach, are putting their knowledge to work.

“It’s really important. I’ve hit about half of the businesses in Scarborough and 40 percent of them are in violation,” Anastasoff said.

Anastasoff said he hopes that increasing the number of enforcement patrols will decrease the failure rate of Scarborough’s businesses. Austin, at the state office, said that is precisely what happens.

“In some instances, the failure rate goes higher if the checks haven’t been happening. But once they start doing them, people say, ‘wow, someone’s watching this,'” Austin said.

Anastasoff took several students from the Scarborough and Saco Police Explorer Programs between the ages of 18 and 20, and sent them into local off-premises and on-premises liquor vendors to purchase alcohol.

“I think they were a little shocked,” he said. “I don’t think they thought so many places would sell to them.”

With the end of the college semester looming, and summer vacation for high school students around the corner, keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors is something local departments are taking very seriously. Last week, Scarborough police broke up several underage parties and cited four people for possession of alcohol by minors, including one who was driving.

Anastasoff said he has done two eight-hour shifts, plus an eight-hour shift’s worth of paperwork, because of all the violations. Combine that with the work of the Saco and Old Orchard Beach officers, and liquor enforcement in the three towns could be a full-time job.

“In my opinion,” he said, “the state should have someone doing this full time.”

Moulton said he is concerned by the number of violations.

“It’s like anything else.” he said. “If no one’s watching, people can get complacent.”

While the department is charged with enforcing all 13 of the state’s liquor laws, Austin said he encourages the officers to focus on some laws more than others.

“The bottom line is we’re keying in on the things that get people hurt,” he said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]