On seven separate dates this year, underage and undercover agents working for the state Department of Revenue’s Liquor Enforcement Division have visited various Pitkin County bars, restaurants and liquor stores in an attempt to purchase alcohol.
The visits are called “compliance checks” and usually result in a fine or some form of suspension of business operations if — after the initial sting and citation — investigators conclude that the business violated state law by selling alcohol to the agent, who is under the legal drinking age of 21.
In total this year, agents made 96 stops in Pitkin County, the lion’s share in Aspen. Of the 96 visits, 15 citations were issued for serving or selling alcohol to minors — a 16 percent failing rate.
State revenue department records show that in 2012, agents made 22 stops in the county on three separate dates, with seven citations issued for a 32 percent failing rate. The first Pitkin County check in 2012 didn’t happen until September; but this year, they started in February.
The uptick in visits this year has raised concerns among local business owners who believe Aspen has been unfairly targeted over the past year. A few of them spoke with The Aspen Times this week but asked that they not be identified, fearing reprisals from the department in the form of increased undercover visits.
They insist that they are trying their best to avoid selling alcohol to minors. But they also believe that the state’s tactics are a form of entrapment, given that the undercover agents typically look much older than their actual age, which is usually 18 to 20. There also is the question of whether the agents themselves are breaking the law in their attempt to nab violators, since it is illegal for a minor to attempt to purchase alcohol.
Some also say that the state has been focusing on Aspen in an attempt to bolster its revenues.
“It’s a money grab right now,” said one downtown bar owner whose establishment passed the underage drinking test, only to get cited for another state liquor-license infraction related to food sales. “If they don’t get you for selling to minors, they will find something else, on another day, for a violation of some ticky-tacky law.”
Department spokeswoman Daria Serna said the enforcement efforts are statewide and that Pitkin County and Aspen are not being singled out.
For example, she said, Pitkin County’s 96 compliance checks this year pale in comparison to Eagle County’s 221 checks and Garfield County’s 170 checks. Pitkin is more on par with Routt County, where there have been 97 checks so far in 2013.
Serna said there has been no push this year by the department to increase its enforcement efforts. As a matter of policy, agents revisit establishments that have been cited for selling to minors within the last 12 months, she said, to ensure that they are following the law.
“A definition of a compliance check is sending in a minor and seeing if that person will be served,” she said.
Serna said it’s nothing new for business owners around the state to complain about the department’s visits.
“I get these calls from Vail, Grand Junction. ... Everyone feels picked on,” she said. “But you have to look across the board at how many we do statewide.
“A couple of months after (someone fails the check) and it is found to be legitimate, we are going to go back and do another one at that same establishment,” Serna added. “And if we are in one area, we don’t just do one restaurant. We don’t have a lot of enforcement people.”
There can be serious consequences to the citations.
During the autumn off-season, Aspen Skiing Co. closed The Little Nell Hotel, its Element 47 restaurant and the Ajax Tavern for two weeks to serve a state suspension for serving alcohol to minors. On June 27, a Little Nell worker served wine to an under-21 employee of the revenue department. It was the second such violation during the year, with the first coming on Feb. 7, state records show.
Also on Feb. 7, the co-owner of The Cheese Shop on East Hopkins Avenue, which is no longer in business, was cited by the state for selling a bottle of wine to a 19-year-old. The case was tried in Pitkin County Court in early December, and a jury found the woman guilty of a misdemeanor. The judge handed her a sentence of 16 hours of community service and a fine of $50; she also was ordered to pay court costs.
Local alcohol merchants, bar and restaurant owners and servers are antsy. The perception of stepped-up enforcement is the talk of the service industry. Rumors are flying fast.
The details are murky, but on Wednesday night, a man said to be affiliated with the Department of Revenue’s Liquor Enforcement Division was dining at the Ajax Tavern. The server checked his ID, and all was fine. But word spread throughout the Aspen gossip mill that the Little Nell got popped again.
Serna said no agents performed checks this week in Pitkin County. Andy Luersen, a public-relations and marketing coordinator for The Little Nell, confirmed that the man had his ID checked and said everything went well.
“It wasn’t a sting,” he said. “There was no intent to bust anyone; he was just having Christmas dinner with his family. Our whole staff has been training to card people.”