That's the ruling of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which tossed out a lawsuit brought by A. McReynolds, 21, who alleged that a clerk refusing to sell him alcohol caused him to be "stigmatized, embarrassed" and branded a criminal.
"Contrary to the plaintiff's hyperbole, he was not accused of a crime," stated the three-judge panel. "He was merely refused service because he entered a liquor store with a companion who, lacking proof of age, gave [the clerk] a reason to believe an illegal purchase could be in the offing."
Circuit Judge Wade Brorby also said in the unanimous ruling that if denying service because someone lacks identification were tantamount to a criminal accusation, "the proper enforcement of liquor laws would generate a mountain of defamation cases against conscientious liquor store clerks around the country."
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in February 2005, the Utah Legislature tightened state liquor laws, turning a policy into a statute that requires companions or groups to have a proper ID when entering one of the state's 36 liquor stores or 100 alcohol package agencies in small towns, hotels and resorts.
"The change was a direct outgrowth of the lawsuit," said Earl Dorius, director of licensing and compliance with the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. "It gives our sales clerks who have a reason to suspect someone in a store is attempting to purchase alcohol for a minor to require both parties to produce an ID showing they are of age."
The ruling, released Friday, upholds a decision by U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball, who said McReynolds had other options to buy liquor that day in 2005. The plaintiff could have asked his companion to retrieve his identification and return to the same Salt Lake City state-controlled liquor store. Or he could have come back to the outlet without his companion.
But attorney Brian Barnard, representing McReynolds, said the higher court's ruling does not take into account the cultural importance of adults' ability to purchase liquor in Utah, where a tenet of the predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to abstain from drinking alcohol.
"Someone refused service, say in California, will not take it as personally as someone in Utah would," said Barnard. "Here, it's a statement of one's identity."
The federal appeals court in Denver, however, said carding liquor store patrons "is an effective means both to protect the public interest and to afford patrons and their companions a fair and reasonable opportunity to demonstrate that an intended liquor purchase is consistent with the law."