Teens Aid Police In Undercover Alcohol Stings
by ANDY MARTIN
THIS YEAR DAVID RAMIREZ WALKED INTO THE FOOD MART of a Chevron gas station in
Oakland. He pulled a 20 ounce bottle of St. Ides malt liquor from the cooler
and took it to the front. The woman behind the counter asked him his age. "Nineteen,"
he said. She didn't blink. She sold him the beer and he left.
Ramirez returned moments later with a police officer who explained to the woman that she had just sold liquor to an underage decoy. "She started to cry," Ramirez recalls. "I guess it was her second hit and she was probably going to lose her job. We felt really bad about it. But she should've known better."
Many in the liquor industry fear kids like Ramirez: Working as "minor
decoys", a sort of young undercover agent, they can shut down businesses
that sell to minors or, in the case of the Chevron clerk, put jobs on the line.
Ramirez is one of several cadets at the Oakland police department who have worked as minor decoys. The police department's Alcohol Beverage Action Team (ABAT) recruits cadets to pose as minors trying to purchase alcohol illegally from local bars, clubs, and restaurants. The program relies on underage decoys as the most effective way to enforce the 21 and over law in Oakland's 857 establishments licensed by the state's department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Police say the minor decoy program is effective. Many in the industry say it is entrapment. The cadets say it's exciting.
"I used to watch 20/20 on TV and they'd use these hidden cameras," Ramirez says. "I thought, 'I want to do that!'" Ramirez is now twenty-too old for the decoy program-but he still looks clearly underage. Standing in the cadet office at the police department, he wears adidas sports gear from head to foot-a slick nylon jogging suit with matching leather sneakers. Despite a new goatee, the outfit and the occasional pimple give away his youth.
Twenty-year-old Tamara Russell is a cadet who worked as a minor decoy for about a year in 1998. "It's fun," she recalls. "Special assignments are usually exciting." Dressed in a navy blue uniform, her dark hair pulled back tight from her face, Russell has a certain abstract youthfulness that defies easy identification. She could be eighteen. She could be twenty-eight.
"Usually I'd walk in by myself," Russell says of her experience as a decoy. "They [the officers] tell me what works-wine coolers, something that works for my age and gender. I would just put it up there and they would ring it up."
Ramirez, who worked as a decoy for two years before he turned twenty, explains the M.O. this way: "They wait in a car outside and you go in and try to buy. Sometimes they [the officers] tell you what to get. You pay for it and walk out. After the sale you go back with the officer and I.D. who sold it to you."
According to these veteran decoys, a number of Oakland liquor stores don't heed the age law. "One guy asked me how old I was," Russell remembers. "I told him 'nineteen' and he still sold to me. Afterwards he said he thought the minimum age was eighteen."
Ramirez concurs. "A lot of them don't care about selling to minors," he says. "Or they don't speak English very well. One place had an eight year old kid behind the counter!"
Russell and Ramirez, who both grew up in Oakland, say underage drinking was widespread at their high schools. And while Russell recognizes the dangers of drinking, she says she knew many teens who drank responsibly.
"The drinking age is way too high," she says. "It's weird to me that at 18 you are an adult-you can vote, you can drive-but you can't drink."
Still, Russell says her personal beliefs never interfered with her work as a decoy. For Russell, being a decoy is just part of being a police cadet. "We don't make the laws," she says. "We just enforce them."
Of course, the enforcement of the decoy program involves more than just the decoy. From the "hit" to the conviction, the process is complex, including local police, the ABC, and increasingly, the courts.
Though the ABC issues liquor licenses, investigates violations, and penalizes stores found guilty of selling to minors, the actual operations are carried out by local police. "We offer technical insight," said Brian Chan, an Oakland-based invesstigator for the ABC. "But the police have to go by our guidelines."
Those guidelines, which the state legislature directed the ABC to adopt in 1994, say the decoy must be under 20, must "display the appearance" of someone underage, and must not lie to obtain the liquor. If a decoy carries identification, it must be real. Male decoys can't have facial hair. Female decoys can't wear make-up. Chan said that the guidelines ensure police are not entrapping businesses. "The goal is not to trick them into selling," he said. "It is to gauge compliance."
John Hinman, a San Francisco lawyer who defends alcohol industry interests, disagrees. Ever since decoy programs became widespread in the area during the late eighties, he explains, deception has been the goal: "police use old-appearing decoys. decoys dress up in suits, wear make-up, take briefcases. . . .it's pure entrapment."
Critics like Hinman have been fighting the decoy programs for years. In 1991, his law firm, Hinman and Carmichael, represented a grocery store owner who sued the ABC when his store was "hit" by a decoy. A state appellate court ruled the decoy program illegal because it violated the state law against sales to minors. But in 1993, the California Supreme Court overturned the decision, ruling that decoy programs were in fact legal.
With minor decoy operations once again legal, then-Governor Pete Wilson stepped up the operation through state funding known as the Grant Assistance to Local Law Enforcement, or GALE. Since 1995, GALE grants have provided up to $100,000 a year to local police departments. In past years, San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward, and San Leandro have received GALE funding.
Through the GALE grants decoy programs have proliferated throughout the state in the last five years. According to the ABC, in the 1997-1998 fiscal year, there were 291 ongoing minor decoy programs that made over 6,000 visits, resulting in over 1,300 ABC violations.
"Decoy operations are really effective," says Ramirez. "You get them scared. We'd hit them once, and when we go back, they're not selling."
Yet despite the effectiveness of the program, Oakland police officer Mike Gessini says the ABC's guidelines make it difficult to find eligible cadets: "Our cadets our running thin," he says. "A lot of them have moustaches and don't want to shave."
Ramirez complains that because of the guidelines, decoys can't act like real minors trying to buy: "A lot of kids have goatees and are going to try to talk smooth to the clerk. If we can't do what the kids do, it's not realistic."
Alcohol industry attorney John Hinman says the guidelines are in place to protect sellers from unfair decoy busts. He adds that even with the guidelines, "anyone can make a mistake." Hinman argues that since the ABC began a mandatory three-strikes rule in 1995 that automatically revokes a seller's license after a third violation in three years, the punishment does not fit the crime-- an owner could lose his business, his entire life's work, because an errant clerk sold to a minor.
"Decoys are the most abused program in the state," he says. "They put people out of business on a regular basis. The program is a joke."
Several liquor retailers in Oakland are less dismissive of the decoy program. "If they try to look old, then it is entrapment," said one liquor store owner in North Oakland whose store had sold to a decoy in the past. The owner says the employee claimed the decoy looked of age. The owner was not swayed and promptly fired the clerk. "There's no benefit in selling to minors," he says. "Our bottom line is 'Never take a chance.'"
Frank Rasheed, owner of White Horse Liquors on Telegraph Avenue, says decoys come into his store a few times a year. "If they send me someone who looks their age, I don't have a problem with that," he says.
Hinman's argument that decoy programs are inherently unfair does not sway the Oakland decoys. "My I.D. is beyond obvious," says Russell, pointing out that her real (underage) date of birth is prominently displayed on her driver's license.
"Why would it not be fair?" Ramirez asks. "Sellers have to provide someone who can read I.D.'s and won't sell to minors. It's just common sense."