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Seven of 13 Park Rapids area alcohol establishments fail sting

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A father of two young children was summarily fired last week during a liquor store compliance check that has left a bad taste with some Park Rapids businesses.

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He wasn't the only one who lost his job.

Thirteen vendors were targeted in the sting operation Aug. 26 that sent a minor into each establishment to buy 3.2 beer.

"Seven of 13 failed," said Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer, whose department conducted the checks. "A little disappointing."

But what is not sitting well is the fact that the minor, just short of his 21st birthday, looked considerably older than his 20 years of age, prompting some to cry foul.

"I would have sold to him," said one clerk whose establishment failed the check. She and her managers reviewed the store's videotape to debrief after the incident. That was the sentiment of two managers who viewed their store's tapes as well, admitting they would not have carded the man.

None of the businesses contacted wanted to speak on the record because it was unclear if criminal charges would be filed. A press release issued Friday morning said a training class would be offered for employees of businesses that sell alcohol. After the training, follow-up compliance checks will be conducted that could result in prosecution.

At least two officers expressed misgivings about the operation because the decoy looked too old.

Drug and alcohol task forces from Cass and Hubbard counties, which planned the event and conducted the training, coordinated the operation.

"They were trained to follow the rules and have the correct paperwork so that's pretty much our involvement with it," said Hubbard County's Chemical Dependency Coordinator Sara Bowles.

"Our hope is that we're educating strongly, that this is against the law and this was all done according to the law," Bowles said Sept. 2. "The process is still underway. Our hope is that people don't sell to youth and beyond that it's a little bit out of our hands."

"I thought it went relatively well," Homer said. "We're going to meet on it and discuss the pluses, minuses of our first run."

Whether the decoy looked his age is still being hotly debated.

"I can't believe this was used as an excuse," Homer said. "He definitely in my mind doesn't look 30 years old. It would be tough to categorize him as a 25-year-old. He's definitely in that gray area.

"I've always been told and if I had a business I'd explain it the same way," Homer added. "If there's any question at all, card 'em because even if he appears to be 30 and you're thinking I don't know, then card 'em. Because he could be 18. You just never know," the sheriff said.

"When we went to our meetings before the compliance check one of the things was not to stack the deck because that's unfair," Homer said.

Police Chief Terry Eilers was uneasy about using the particular decoy and has spent the past week doing damage control, visiting each targeted business that failed the compliance check.

Since many have policies that require firing employees who sell to underage customers, Eilers is working with each company to reinstate the employees who fell victim to the sting.

"During the (pre-sting) discussion we didn't know what kind of problem we have in the county and we'd like to find out so if we find some selling, we'll get all the paperwork put together and meet afterwards and figure this out and see what's going on," Eilers said of his understanding of the objective.

"My suggestion was to use this as a teaching thing, a learning thing," the chief said.

As to whether the operation was targeted for educational purposes or for prosecution, Homer said, "Actually it's gonna be a little of both. The initial go round was education with the stipulation that if this continues there will be charges. The big kick is the education portion."

However, some businesses that failed were told that night by a deputy accompanying the minor that criminal charges would be filed against the sellers, including the father of two.

Selling to a minor is a gross misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 1 year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine upon conviction.

"At least they'll know we're checking," Eilers said. "They'll never know when we'll go around and check so they're gonna have to sharpen up their deal."

But Eilers wants to ensure that future compliance checks use decoys that look a questionable age, since most businesses leave it to the discretion of their employees whether to card customers or not.

The decoy was actually an employee of one of the convenience stores checked, which passed the test along with a companion store, Eilers said.

Compliance checks for tobacco or alcohol are often controversial because the businesses feel entrapped, as they claimed they were in Park Rapids.

"Now is there such a thing as being unfair in an area we have issues?" Homer asked "To each his own."

According to a press release issued Friday morning, a responsible beverage service class will be offered Tuesday, Sept. 28 to those who served minors during the compliance check, as well as all employees of businesses that sell alcohol. After training is held, there will be follow-up compliance checks that could result in servers being prosecuted.

To register for the class, contact the Hubbard County Youth Drug and Alcohol Task Force at 237-4114. The classes will be from 8 a.m. to noon and 4 to 8 p.m. Sept. 28 at the American Legion in Park Rapids and presented by Bob Leslie, a certified trainer.

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