ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Parents may deny it, but most teenage children admit they occasionally drink alcohol.
A study of Florida teens found more than half of teens said they drink occasionally and one out of six admit to binge drinking. Experts say alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by Florida teens.
Nearly a quarter of sixth graders say they've already had a drink of alcohol.
The question is, where do these underage drinkers get their booze? Investigators know some of them buy alcohol at retail stores -- just like adults.
Channel 4 went undercover with local deputies to find out who is selling alcohol to teens in this area. Law enforcement agencies regularly conduct stings -- sending in undercover, underage buyers to see who will sell to them.
Sgt. Mike Strausbaugh from the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office says it's about the sellers ignoring the law.
"We are, in conjunction with school district and (the Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County. We're trying to combat the problem of underage drinking in our community," Stausbaugh said.
"A lot of youth and the community have come to us and said, 'Underage drinking is an issue,'" said LeAnn Daddario, of the Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County. (PACT). "We've decided to partner with the St. Johns County sheriff's office in an initiative to make sure retailers are not selling to underage minors."
Daddario's coalition focuses on preventing underage drinking and drug abuse among kids. Aligned with PACT and utilizing a teen volunteer, the sheriff's office operates a sting on businesses in the county.
"So we want to see, every time we go out, retailers ask for their ID," Daddario said. "We don't particularly want people to get in trouble, we just want make sure the retailer is doing their part."
Strausbaugh trains an underage volunteer to go into a store and buy the same product with the same money at each stop. If asked, the teen agrees to offer their real ID, with their real age on it.
With Channel 4 in on a recent operation, the nervous teen strolled into a Kangaroo store on U.S. Highway 1 not far from the Sheriff's Office. Moments later, she strolled out with beer she had purchased. It was the first business she tried to buy from.
Once the teen operative buys and walks out with beer, undercover deputies already in the store work with a uniformed deputy to issue a citation. In some cases, the store has to close because the cited clerk is the only one on duty.
"This evening, the person who sold is in trouble," Strausbaugh said. "But ultimately, the license can be looked at by the state."
The undercover teen was surprised at how easy it was to buy booze.
"She didn't even ask me for ID. I thought she would at least do that," the17-year-old said. "She just glanced at me, I handed her the money, and I walked out!"
Strausbaugh and his team took the same scenario to 14 businesses in the area the day Channel 4 shadowed the operation. While a similar detail the week before found every business following the law and refusing to sell alcohol to the undercover, that wasn't the case the night Channel 4 rode along.
The next seven straight stores followed the law, but a clerk at the Hess Station near Interstate 95 and State Route 207 took the cash and handed over the beer.
Sanjay Patel, store manager at Hess Station, talked after receiving his citation.
"(This is) unusual. This is first time," Patel said. "It was kind of really busy. It just slipped out of my mind."
Every store the St. Johns County enforcement team visited that day displayed a sign: We ID. Responsibility Matters.
Authorities say the responsibility doesn't end with whoever pulls the alcohol out of the cooler or off the shelf. It also goes to whoever behind the counter.
Before the evening we over, Channel 4 saw two more businesses sell to the 17-year-old. While four of 14 stores visited sold alcohol without asking for ID, that mean 10 followed the law.
It was a painful and embarrassing process for the clerks who sold the alcohol.
"You don't want to see anybody lose their job this day and age, but we're hoping we can get some education out of it," Strausbaugh said.
He appreciates the efforts of his teenage volunteer.
"She wanted to be part of the solution, so kudos to her," Strausbaugh said. "I'm glad we have children out there that want to step up and take a positive option -- try to make a difference.'
Following this "alcohol compliance detail in December," the Sheriff's Office ran another operation in January. During that sting, three of of 16 stores visited sold to a different teenage undercover volunteer.
So why is this important?
In 2009 across the United States, 123 homicides, more than 81,000 non-fatal violent crimes like rape and robbery, and nearly 140,000 property crimes like burglary and car theft attributed to underage drinking.
How does a concerned citizen get involved?
The state needs you to report any underage sales that you observe. There's even an anonymous reporting telephone line:
Teens and adults can become part of the Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County. Clay, Duval and Nassau counties all have an organization similar to PACT that want teens and parents to get involved and make a difference in their neighborhoods.
- St. Johns County: pactprevention.org
- Nassau County: nacdac.org
- Clay County: clayactioncoalition.org
- Duval County: shdcfl.org
Other links of interest:
- Penalties for drinking underage in Florida
- Research on the impact in Florida of underage drinking
- Statistics of teen drug and alcohol abuse in Florida
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