About a fourth of the Utah bars and restaurants cited for state liquor law violations each year fail to pay their fines on time, according to officials with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
“They verbally commit to a settlement and then fail to either sign the agreement or pay their fines,” said Sheila Page, the DABC’s legal counsel from the attorney general’s office. “They don’t follow through with their obligation.”
On Tuesday, the seven-member DABC liquor commission decided to get tough on delinquents, giving three businesses a deadline of Dec. 15 to pay their fines or risk losing their liquor licenses.
The three — Antica Forma in Vernal, El Mexicano #2 in Mount Pleasant and Casa Dona Maria Mexican Cuisine in Cedar City — have all signed agreements but have yet to pay, Page said.
If the restaurant owners fail to meet the deadline, they will be expected to attend the next commission meeting Dec. 19 and explain why the fines have not been paid, Commissioner Thomas Jacobson said in a motion that was unanimously approved. At that time, the commission has the option of revoking the liquor licenses.
Commission members said if the get-tough approach works, they likely will use it in the future to get timely payments from other licensees.
“I sense the attorney general’s frustration and something needs to be done,” added John T. Nielsen, the commission chairman.
The number of liquor citations issued annually averages about 150, although it was as high as 300 in 2013. Of those citations, 20 percent to 25 percent are not settled in a timely manner, Page said.
“It’s frustrating,” she said, noting that the late payments are costly, using up valuable staff time to collect signatures and payments.
Last year, the state collected more than $218,000 in alcohol-related fines.
Bars and restaurants that have been granted liquor licenses from the DABC get surprise visits from officers with the State Bureau of Investigation about four times each year. SBI officers typically send 18- and 19-year-olds, called Covert Underage Buyers or CUBs, to test if an establishment will allow them to enter and serve them liquor. The CUBs use their actual driver licenses to try to gain entry.
During the visits, SBI officers also look for other liquor violations, such as proper liquor storage or serving alcohol without food.
SBI does not visit grocery and convenience stores. Most undercover visits to those retail outlets are conducted by law enforcement in individual cities.
Because of the CUB program, most SBI citations are for a “sale to minor,” which is considered a serious violation. First-time offenders can negotiate either a five-day suspension of their liquor license or pay a $1,000 fine. Repeat offenders can get up to a 30-day license suspension and a $3,000 fine.
Other violations range from minor (failing to wear a proper ID badge) to “grave” (serving to an intoxicated person). Minor penalties get warnings, while grave penalties include a 10-day license revocation and fine up to $25,000.
Officers issue the citation on site to the business owner as well as the employee who made the infraction. The business owner must then work with the DABC and the attorney general’s office to settle the case. They can choose a court hearing or agree to a settlement, often negotiating it by telephone, said Page.
Servers who are cited go through the normal legal system for their citation and fines.
Page hopes the strict deadline works. “I can’t tell you why these people will get on the phone and negotiate with an attorney two or three different times and still not pay. We call and they do not respond. We give them notice and make sure it’s clear that they are not in compliance.”