Failure to scan license can be costly
It can be illegal for a bar to serve a drink to young adults in Utah.
The violation comes when the bar fails to run an electronic scanner on driver licenses of anyone who looks 35 years old or younger. The penalty for failing to electronically verify licenses is akin to serving alcohol to a minor.
Peggy Bowen, owner of Chuckles Lounge in Salt Lake City, said her bartender asked three young adults, all older than 21, to show their driver licenses, but because the club did not use its electronic device, "we were told we broke the law."
The club regularly uses an electronic scanning device, she said. But on Feb. 18, the bartender only checked the licenses visually.
"I don't like it; I think it's unfair, but I don't have the money to fight this," said Bowen. "Now everyone who looks under 60 gets their licenses scanned."
Bowen paid $1,158 in fines and court costs.
This offense will stay on her record, serving to increase the severity of penalties if any other violations occur, including the possibility of losing her liquor license. She has had no other violations during the nearly 10 years her club has been in business, according to state records.
Bowen's club is among four bars in Salt Lake City and an Ogden club that have been busted for failing to use a scanning device during undercover stings. All paid fines rather than contest the charges. Other cases are pending.
The little-known penalty is part of landmark legislation that did away with Utah's private club law in July. Then Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. had made elimination of the private clubs one of his priorities to boost the state's $6 billion-a-year tourism industry.
In exchange for dropping membership requirements, lawmakers required bar owners to install electronic devices and to retain the data for seven days to aid in police investigations of alcohol-related crimes.
The law requires only clubs to use scanning devices. Grocery stores, restaurants serving liquor and state-controlled liquor outlets have no similar requirements to electronically check licenses.
Bob Brown, owner of Cheers to You in Salt Lake City, said bar owners readily agreed to install the devices as a compromise to get the legislation passed. But he said he is shocked at the severity of the penalty, which had not been determined before lawmakers passed SB187. His club has not been cited.
Lawyers with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control determined that under administrative rules, the scanner violation for bars is "serious," giving the offense the same gravity as allowing a minor onto the premises or serving alcohol to underage drinkers.
Assistant Attorney General Shelia Page said the penalty was deemed serious -- rather than minor or moderate with lesser penalties -- because the law involves issues relating to public health and underage drinkers.
The legislative intent is clear," she said. "The Legislature made a determination that the [scanning] requirement is a gatekeeper to keep minors out of clubs."
Lt. Chris Simmons, who is over the Utah Highway Patrol's liquor-enforcement team, said undercover officers routinely look to see if a club has a scanner. In the majority of citations, the clubs did not scan licenses of the undercover officers themselves, he added.
Officers also could prosecute the cases criminally as a class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. But so far, the most appropriate response is to simply refer the cases to the liquor-control board for action.
"We haven't issued any misdemeanor citations," said Simmons. "But we could."
Lisa Marcy, attorney for Utah Hospitality Association, said failing to use a scanner on anyone who appears to be under 35 is arbitrary and "if challenged is unenforceable. In any other area, other than alcohol, the public would be outraged. It's like a police officer testifying that a driver 'appeared' to be speeding. And instead of issuing a traffic citation, the driver was charged with a class B misdemeanor."
Kokomo Club in Ogden was also caught not using a scanner. It was also cited for a bartender not using a metered pouring device and allowing patrons to leave with open containers. The highest fine in the $2,250 charged to the club was the $1,000 penalty for the scanner offense.
The violations were the club's first offenses in 50 years.
State attorneys have determined that the violation is "serious" when bars fail to scan driver licenses for anyone who looks age 35 or younger. Here is the range of penalties for liquor violations:
Minor offense » A verbal or written warning
Moderate offense » Up to a $1,000 fine
Serious » 5- to 30-day suspension and/or a fine of $500 to $3,000
Grave » 10 days suspension, revocation of liquor licenses, up to a $25,000 fine