BANGOR, Maine — Underage and overserved patrons can spell big trouble for bars, restaurants, stores and other businesses that are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. They also can have serious, sometimes tragic, consequences for the broader community.
More than a dozen people involved in alcohol sales met in the second-floor training room at the Bangor Police Department earlier this month to learn what they can do to protect their patrons, communities and themselves.
Knowing how to prevent liquor violations not only can prevent legal trouble, it also can help keep insurance costs in check, said instructor Frank Lyons of BC Consultants. A tough-talking former cop, Lyons retired in 2005 after a 29-year career in law enforcement, 23 as an officer with the state Bureau of Liquor Enforcement.
Lyons said that knowing and adhering to state liquor laws and policies, which prohibit sales to minors and visibly intoxicated people and require that anyone under 27 be carded, can mean “the difference between losing the Buick and losing the farm.”
An owner or employee who runs afoul of the law can face fines of up to $1,500, he said. Even worse is that a licensee can be sued for up to $350,000, plus medical expenses, for serving a visibly intoxicated person who causes injury to others.
Lyons said that among those who are subject to lawsuits are the customer who overindulged, the employee who served or sold alcohol to that customer, the manager and the owner.
During his class, Lyons offered “three keys to keeping your bacon out of trouble,” or simple steps any licensee can take to prevent liquor law violations:
• Train staff to assess all patrons who walk through the door, ideally multiple times, to determine whether they are old enough to be drinking and their levels of sobriety.
Lyons said making visual and verbal contact with patrons can help licensees determine whether a patron is under 21 or has had too much to drink. Having patrons present ID cards not only verifies age, it also enables licensees to assess sobriety levels. Some signs that a patron might be intoxicated include poor motor skills, slurred speech and bloodshot eyes.
• Develop a sound written business policy and stick to it.
“It doesn’t exist if it’s not in writing,” Lyons said, adding that it’s not enough just to have a policy. The policy needs to be reviewed frequently and followed.
“If you sign a policy that says I promise not to sell to a drunk and I promise not to sell to a kid and [then shelve it], that is a piece of garbage. It’s not worth the ink you signed your name on,” Lyons said. “By the way, don’t make it personal, ever. It’s not about them, it’s not about you. It’s about you complying with Maine law and policy. The policy is what you train to, so when the crap hits the fan, that’s where you go.”
• Take care of one another.
“Nobody in this room bats 1.000. We come to work distracted,” he said, noting that as human beings, alcohol servers are subject to life’s distractions, which may include family illness, financial pressure or relationship problems, to name a few. To that end, staff members need to work together to make sure the business is oper-ating legally and that patrons aren’t being overserved.
“Security staff, the doorman, the bartender, manager and wait staff should stop every 30 minutes and walk through that crowd and do an assessment,” he said.
Other topics Lyons covered included the Maine Liquor Enforcement Act, alcohol’s effects on the body, how to deal with visibly intoxicated people and how to spot fake ID cards.
During the class, he showed example after example of fake ID cards confiscated in Maine bearing such telltale signs as rough edges, blurry or uneven printing, the words “genuine” or “authentic” and laminate with holograms of skeleton keys.
Participants also learned about the need to keep accurate records, prohibited sales and advertising practices, when not to serve liquor and how to spot fake identification, namely those that have been altered, forged, fictitiously obtained or belong to another person. ID cards also aren’t valid if they were issued by a nongovern-mental entity.
This month’s session and three previous ones offered locally this year were free, thanks to funding from Healthy Maine Partnerships, according to Willow McVeigh, substance abuse and tobacco prevention specialist for Bangor Region Public Health and Wellness, a city department.
Participants who pass the test at the end of Lyons’ 4½-hour class are certified by the state for five years, she said.
The vast majority of the dozen or so people who attended Lyons’ class were employees of Pete and Larry’s Lounge at the Holiday Inn on Odlin Road.
Jenny Williams, a manager at the Odlin Road establishment, said employees there have been receiving instruction through an online program. Lyons’ class provided an opportunity to learn in a live setting.
“It’s good to go over the responsibilities we have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “A lot of what [Lyons] teaches is that observing [patrons] is one of the biggest tools we have.”
Jeff Austin, licensing and compliance supervisor for the Maine Department of Public Safety’s Liquor Licensing and Inspection Division, said that alcohol-related violations have been on the decline since 2004, a year after the elimination of the state agency responsible for liquor enforcement.
Austin credits the decreasing numbers in part to training offered to owners, managers and employees, but also to the state having entered a partnership with the Maine Sheriffs’ Association and agreements with 70 county and municipal law enforcement units.
When those changes started taking effect in 2004, Austin said, the state was handling about 1,420 violations a year. Last year, the number had dropped to about 800, and Austin believes that this year the total could be even lower.
The partnership and agreements gave county and municipal police the authority to do compliance checks at businesses that serve alcohol on premises, such as restaurants and bars, as well as at convenience and grocery stores, Austin said.
The compliance checks — often using undercover agents who are minors — aim to curb sales to minors and visibly intoxicated people and sales and consumption of alcohol after legal operating hours, or the kinds of violations “that hurt people.”
Some of the municipal departments Austin says have excelled in terms of compliance include Orono, Bangor and Portland.
For more information about the Seller Server Training course, visit BC Consultants’ website at www.alcohol-training.com.