Structure and Functions of State Alcohol Beverage Control Enforcement Agencies

The enforcement of alcohol beverage control laws is an important component of a comprehensive program designed to protect the public’s health and safety. The use of sobriety checkpoints, for example, has been shown to be an effective enforcement strategy for reducing impaired driving (Lacey, Jones, and Smith, 1999; Lacey and Jones, 2000). While sobriety checkpoints target impaired drivers with a focus on deterring drinking and driving, other enforcement strategies have shown promise in changing retailer behavior that, in turn, changes the environment in which hazardous drinking occurs. For example, a study in Michigan evaluated the effectiveness of enforcement, publicity, and educational activities to encourage retailer compliance with a law prohibiting sales to intoxicated persons. Refusals of service to pseudo-intoxicated patrons rose from 17.5 percent before the intervention began to a peak of 54.3 percent after the first three months of the enforcement intervention. Significantly, the percentage of impaired drivers arrested after leaving bars and restaurants declined from 31.7 percent to 23.3 percent during the same time period. The refusal rate for service to pseudo-intoxicated persons remained at 41 percent one year after the program ended, indicating that the intervention had an enduring effect on service compliance with sales to intoxicated laws (McKnight and Streff, 1994). A review of several studies demonstrated that over 40 percent of impaired drivers had their last drink at a licensed establishment (O’Donnell, 1985; Anglin, 1997; Gallup, 2000), so clearly policies and enforcement actions designed to reduce the over-service of alcohol to patrons are important for public health. When enforcement efforts are combined with policy change and public support, the results can be significant. For example, a large community trials study conducted from 1992 to 1996 implemented a comprehensive, community-wide set of interventions including new restrictions on alcohol availability, responsible beverage service training, media advocacy, and increased enforcement of alcohol sales and alcohol traffic laws. The evaluation revealed significant reductions in alcohol-related traffic crashes (Holder, et al., 2000). These studies point to the importance of alcohol law enforcement in protecting the public’s health and safety.

Alcohol law enforcement seeks to increase compliance with laws by increasing the level of perceived deterrence among those subject to legal restrictions. Deterrence involves three key components: the perceived likelihood that a violation will lead to apprehension, the perceived swiftness with which a penalty will be imposed, and the extent of the penalty (Ross, 1992). As stated in the recent National Research Council, Institute of Medicine, report on underage drinking, the effectiveness of alcohol control policies depends heavily on the “intensity of implementation and enforcement and on the degree to which the intended targets are aware of both the policy and its enforcement” (NRC, IOM, 2003: p. 164). In other words, if employees, managers, and owners of licensed establishments believe that they will be caught if they violate the law, they are more likely to be vigilant in their compliance with the law. Our legal research and interviews with ABC agency officials assessed the extent to which alcohol law enforcement is able to establish perceived deterrence among alcohol retailers.

Enforcement Resources – Inadequate and Declining
Most States have a State agency with primary responsibility for enforcing alcohol laws and regulations. The enforcement capacity of these agencies varies widely. In at least seven States, the agency’s enforcement agents are not sworn police/peace officers and are not permitted to carry firearms. Agency representatives reported that these restrictions seriously hamper the agents’ effectiveness in the field. States also vary widely in the number of agents assigned primarily to alcohol enforcement duties, particularly when comparing the ratio of agents to the number of outlets in the field. The chart in Appendix B presents these data for the District of Columbia and the 41 States where data was available, and is summarized in the chart below:

States with ABC agents who are sworn police/peace officers
States with ABC agents who carry firearms
Average number of ABC agents that primarily enforce alcohol laws per State
Average number of licensed retail outlets per State3

There are more than 600,000 licensed retail alcohol outlets in the United States. This figure does not include producers, wholesalers, and distributors, who also need licenses to conduct business in each State. According to a 1994 study, there are, on average, only two arrests for every thousand occasions of youth drinking and only five actions against an alcohol outlet taken for every one hundred thousand youth drinking occasions (Wagenaar and Wolfson, 1994). This low rate of detection is not surprising given the woefully inadequate resources that alcohol enforcement agencies possess. The number of agents per State ranges from 3 to 260, with a median of 34. As an average national ratio, each State alcohol law enforcement agent is responsible for monitoring the activities of approximately 268 licensed establishments. With only slightly more than 2,000 enforcement agents nationwide who are specifically charged with regulating and enforcing alcohol laws, there is a large disparity between the level of resources that enforcement agencies currently possess and the level needed to ensure compliance with alcohol laws4.

Agency enforcement is not limited to actions against licensed establishments. Most agencies also investigate complaints such as unlicensed/illegal alcohol sales, false identification manufacture and distribution, and underage alcohol distribution (ranging from adults illegally providing/selling alcohol to youth to underage parties). In addition, many agencies reported that their enforcement responsibilities are expanding to include underage tobacco sales, tax collection, tax fraud, illegal gambling, prostitution, and illicit drugs. Although their responsibilities are expanding, resources for enforcement are static or decreasing. As a result, the percentage of time that alcohol enforcement officers have available to focus on their primary responsibility is steadily declining.

Limits on Authority
States vary in the extent to which they grant alcohol enforcement agents full arrest powers. States such as Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin have statutes that limit the type of violations for which agents may make arrests. In many cases, agents may only make arrests in or around licensed premises. In other cases, the restrictions are more explicit. For example, agents in Pennsylvania may arrest someone for possessing false identification, but not for the manufacture of false IDs, which is outside their jurisdiction. Although this is an area of debate, many agency representatives believe that the lack of arrest powers hampers alcohol enforcement agents’ effectiveness. They may observe certain violations but they are unable to take action without requesting assistance from other law enforcement agencies. This may be time consuming or infeasible and can result in the absence of enforcement action. Restrictions on firearm possession pose a similar problem. Agents operate in close environments with hostile drunken individuals, and thus frequently face potentially dangerous situations. If agents are not allowed to carry firearms, they may have to rely on other law enforcement agencies to provide back-up before taking any action.

Administrative Placement
In most States, alcohol beverage administration, licensing, and enforcement are all housed within the same agency. Recently however, some States have transferred or are considering transferring the enforcement responsibilities to other agencies. Currently, at least seven alcohol enforcement agencies are housed under their State’s department of public safety, while at least four State police agencies have primary responsibility for enforcing alcohol laws. There is some debate regarding the implications of separating the enforcement from administrative and licensing functions. The advisability of such a separation may hinge on the State’s process for adjudicating administrative cases of alcohol law violations, discussed below.

State-Local Partnerships
One strategy for addressing the lack of alcohol enforcement resources at the State level is to increase and improve partnerships between State and local law enforcement agencies. Agency representatives report that each type of agency can bring a unique set of skills to the partnership. The State alcohol enforcement agents have expertise in the area of alcohol laws, and in many States, alcohol enforcement agents have special authority that local law enforcement agents may not possess. For example, alcohol enforcement agents may enter alcohol establishments and inspect the establishment’s paperwork, serving practices, and the general environment to ensure compliance with all alcohol laws and regulations. In addition, alcohol enforcement agents have access to case histories on each establishment, and may serve as a liaison between the State and the local community when determining if a particular licensed establishment has become hazardous to the community. Local law enforcement agencies may have more staffing resources and a more specific understanding of the alcohol-related problems in their communities. They can help the State agency pinpoint problem establishments, provide backup, and provide evidence at adjudication hearings.

However, local law enforcement agencies usually do not have the resources or expertise to handle these responsibilities on their own and cannot substitute for an effective State agency. Recent events in Maine highlight the problems with shifting State agency enforcement responsibilities to local jurisdictions. Maine disbanded its Bureau of Liquor Enforcement in June 2003 and transferred its responsibilities to local law enforcement agencies. Press reports suggest that the transfer has resulted in a sharp reduction in enforcement. Local law enforcement agencies do not have the resources or adequate authority to deal with these new responsibilities. As one sheriff reported, “We don’t have the manpower to follow up and do the regulatory job historically done by the BLE…. Some things are going to have to go.” (Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc., May 12, 2003). In addition, each local jurisdiction must appeal to the Maine Department of Public Safety for expanded authority to enforce certain laws covering liquor licenses. In the absence of this authority, there are only six civilian inspectors housed in the Department of Public Safety to monitor alcohol retailer compliance across the State. As one bar owner stated, “There is a lot to be said for having aspects of State liquor enforcement run by the State.” (Press Herald, October 2, 2003).

Maine’s decision threatens effective alcohol law enforcement in the State and adds additional responsibilities to already resource-starved local law enforcement agencies. Building partnerships between State and local law enforcement agencies to enforce alcohol laws can enhance the effectiveness of all agencies involved. However, the partnership requires sufficient resources, specific, special powers for State agents, and State leadership and commitment to alcohol law enforcement goals.

In summary, data from our interviews support two main findings that relate to ABC enforcement agencies:

  1. ABC agencies do not have enough agents to monitor activities of the licensees effectively; and

  2. In at least some States, ABC agents do not have sufficient authority to carry out their duties.

These findings have important implications for the adjudication process. With few resources and inadequate staffing, swift and certain procedures for assessing violations and appropriate penalties are even more important.

3This number is based on 42 States and the District of Columbia, whereas the other numbers include 42 jurisdictions total.
4It also important to note that this data was collected over more than a one-year period, from September 2001 through December 2002. During and since that time many State alcohol enforcement agencies experienced severe budget cuts, and the number of enforcement agents is currently much smaller. While number of agents is one indicator of resources, law enforcement officials also report that they have experienced cutbacks in other areas as well. Some agencies report they are now restricted by the number of miles they can put on their vehicles, and they are unable to purchase new equipment to either maintain or improve their effectiveness.