Police would like to see punishment at the end of the line for those who sell alcohol to underage patrons.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Three Boardman High School seniors who bought 90 cans of beer at a South Avenue drive-through failed to deliver it to a party.
One of the 18-year-old boys used his older brother's identification. The clerk suspected something was amiss and notified Paul Brown, the vice cop at his elbow, who used his two-way radio to alert fellow officers outside.
"Since we started Cops in Shops in 1997, the majority of citations have been kids from the suburbs," said Lt. William Powell, vice squad commander. "I can't say why that is -- there are places in the suburbs that will sell to underage drinkers."
The photograph on the driver's license didn't look like the buyer and the boys in the car all looked young, Brown said. "I think they get away with it a lot because most clerks look at the date, not the face," he said.
Underage buyers will say they forgot their license or try to convince the clerk that they bought beer at the store within the past few days, Brown said. Once they learn they can buy, they buy in large amounts.
What youths do: The three Boardman boys -- who bought five 18-packs -- represent typical partygoers who, especially during this prom and graduation season, pool their money and then attempt to buy beer at busy drive-throughs or convenience stores, Powell said. They use a car, rent a motel room or find a house to celebrate.
They target the busy places, thinking the clerks won't take the time to check IDs. What they fail to realize is that Cops in Shops randomly sets up surveillance in 38 such busy locations throughout the city.
The idea of the state-funded program is not to make arrests but to deter underage sales, Powell said. To do this, stores prominently post signs that warn there could be a cop in the shop.
"We know the program works -- we see a lot of 'walkaways' who won't try to buy after they see the signs," Powell said. "We have undercover officers out every week and stagger the days and hours so you never know when they'll be in the store."
Since January, the vice squad has tracked 70 walkaways and issued 10 citations to boys and girls under 21 who attempted to buy beer. Police also charged two adults who purchased beer for those not old enough to buy it.
Here's the situation: Powell said alcohol is the drug of choice in the 14-to-21-age range and he sees a correlation between underage sales and fatal car crashes.
Statistics nationwide show that alcohol-related crashes account for one death every 33 minutes and half of all teen-age fatalities involve alcohol.
To combat underage drinking, the vice squad also sends undercover minors -- with their parents' permission -- into bars, where they try to get served.
A week ago, based on complaints of underage sales at Little Gail's bar on Mahoning Avenue, the vice squad sent in a teen-ager, who promptly got served by the bartender, Powell said.
Police also spotted three young-looking drinkers and, when they checked identification, discovered that a 19-year-old man and two 16-year-old girls had been served alcoholic beverages.
The bartender, Jason A. Larosa, 25, of Mansell Drive, Liberty, pleaded no contest to illegal sales of alcohol and permitting minors on liquor permit premises.
Municipal Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. sentenced Larosa to 30 days in jail, suspended it all, fined him $100 and placed him on six months' nonreporting probation.
Zero tolerance: Powell said the vice squad does a good job of following Police Chief Richard Lewis' zero tolerance policy for all crimes, but time and again sees the crimes go unpunished by Judges Douglas and Robert P. Milich. In most cases, the two judges sentence defendants to probation.
"It's a proven fact that you have to start with the minor crimes and quality-of-life issues and arresting is not a deterrent unless there's a penalty," Powell said. "It's not fair to the public -- there has to be justice at the end of the line."
Powell credited Municipal Judge Elizabeth A. Kobly with considering the crime and defendant's record before sentencing.
"If we had two other judges like her, we wouldn't have the problems we have and the jails would be busting at the seams," the vice squad commander said.