Enforcement of underage drinking laws slows during Illinois budget standoff

By Heather Gillers, Chicago Tribune

Bartenders and liquor store clerks around the state have a strong incentive to ask young-looking customers for ID: the risk that those patrons may not only be underage but also be working undercover for the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

These days, however, that risk is low. Liquor commission sting operations are among the latest casualties of Illinois’ nearly five-month budget standoff, with only 38 this past August — the most recent month for which figures are available — compared with 208 in August 2014.

Liquor commission spokesman Terry Horstman said the stings will ramp back up once funding is approved.


Statewide sting operations, run by Illinois’ 15 liquor control agents in conjunction with state and local police, began about 10 years ago, Horstman said. Bars, restaurants or liquor stores that sell alcohol to undercover workers can be fined or have liquor licenses suspended or revoked.

Over the past five years, as sting operations increased from 825 in 2009 to 3,669 in 2014, the percentage of liquor license holders cited dropped from 20 percent to 16 percent.

“When you catch somebody it sends a message and when you don’t catch somebody it still sends a message that somebody’s watching them,” said Sam Canzoneri, Illinois executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who took part in stings as a Lake Bluff police officer. “It’s another set of eyes and ears.”

Lake Bluff police team up with officers from neighboring Lake Forest to conduct stings. But many towns rely on the state. In Berwyn and Oak Lawn, for example, all alcohol stings are done in collaboration with the state liquor commission. The Oak Park police occasionally conduct stings on their own in response to a complaint, but usually collaborate with the commission.

Limited resources is only one of the difficulties local authorities face in policing bars and liquor stores.

“It would be hard for any of us to go in the store [undercover] and stand watch,” said Suzanne Bogart, police chief in Colona (population 5,100), near the Quad Cities. “Everyone knows who we are.” The state cited two of Colona’s nine liquor license holders in May.

Illinois State Police also conduct some sting operations on their own. In 2014, the state police did 1,196 checks — on their own and in cooperation with the liquor commission — a spokesman said.


Illinois has gone without a budget since July 1 as a result of a deep partisan divide in Springfield. That means the state can’t pay young adults to participate in stings, liquor commission officials said.

Horstman said the commission is exploring the possibility of using volunteers.

Though the stings cost money, the program also brings in revenue. Hearings in October, for example, brought in $8,000 in fines. That money goes into the state’s general fund, Horstman said.

More permanent changes may also be in the works at the state liquor commission. The Tribune has reported that Gov. Bruce Rauner is considering shifting resources away from the local level, where state agents handle duties such as inspecting bars and liquor stores. That would allow the state to clamp down harder on trade violations that alcohol distributors have long complained about, such as merchants bringing alcohol into the state without paying taxes. The proposed changes, however, would not affect sting operations.

During the 2014-15 school year, liquor control agents visited college towns, including Champaign, Urbana, Carbondale and Evanston, as well as the Bloomington-Normal area.

In June, commission stings caught stores, bars and restaurants in Naperville, Oak Park, West Chicago, Orland Park, Markham, Hoffman Estates and Gurnee selling alcohol to students under the age of 21 who were working undercover, records show. Those operations caught the attention of at least one owner.

“We are doing new precautions,” said Raj Bhatnagar, owner of Qwik Convenience in Naperville, which was cited in June. “We put in a system where every time we scan a liquor bottle or beer or anything, it asks for ID and you have to enter the date of birth.”

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