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
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
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:
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.