Underage buyers over-served at SJC restaurants

St. Johns County deputies catch waitresses serving alcohol to minors

By Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - It starts early, with even sixth graders admitting their use. Florida young people find ways to get alcohol and drugs.

When it comes to businesses helping children get their hands on alcohol, that's where law enforcement steps in.

We went undercover with St. Johns County Sheriff's deputies to find out which restaurants aren't following the rules.

This is the second undercover operation we've done with recently with the Sheriff's Office and a non-profit coalition called PACT -- Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County.  PACT is a community group focused on stopping underage drinking and drug use. A key to that is stopping businesses from actually selling it to them.

"The fact they were served alcohol is a misdemeanor in the state of Florida," said Deputy Robert Kennedy explained his reason for interrupting the evening rush at Lemongrass Asian Bistro in St. Augustine.

A waitress placed a glass of wine and a bottle of beer in front of two teens participating in a sting by the Sheriff's Office.

Without naming the minors in this story, we can tell you the young man is 17 and his female counterpart 18.

They both enter the restaurants as if they're on a date. One or both order alcohol. If the served asks for it, they show their real IDs.

"I think it's great way to keep businesses honest, and keep kids from getting in danger, because adults are letting them do things they're not responsible enough to make decisions for yet," the female operative told us. "It's a good way to keep people honest about selling alcohol to underage kids."

The teen boy added, "You look at it as friends, keeping them safe and out of trouble in the future. Keeping them making the right decisions, or keeping them from making the wrong decisions."

When the teens went into a restaurant, Deputy Kennedy shadowed them. He was there to make sure the teens stay safe, and to intervene if alcohol gets served illegally.

Kennedy told the manager at Lemongrass: "Your server checked IDs on two patrons that were underage. One was 17, the other 18. Checked their IDs, yet still served them alcohol, a light beer, and a glass of wine."

On a Friday night, the detail visited 10 restaurants. Three served alcohol to the minors. Despite the mistakes made by employees at Sumo Sushi in Julington Creek, deputies made no arrests and wrote no citations, but they made their message clear.

"Make sure that you check it, because the charge is going to go on you. The $500 fine is going to go on you," Corporal Greg Suchy told a server.

What we want to do is get with the person who is physically checking the ID and talk to that person. When there's so many people involved, we take the opportunity to make it a learning experience for as many people as possible… That's our opportunity to involve four or five people."

LeAnn Daddario, the PACT Prevention Coalition coordinator, chaperoned the teens operatives throughout this sting. She's involved with the group's simple mission: to stop teen alcohol abuse.

"We're out here with sheriff's office, working with establishments, to make sure we're not serving to underage kids," Daddario said. "It's not one industry's, not one sector's responsibility, it's a community wide responsibility."

In St. Johns County, the most recent study showed alcohol is the most commonly used drug among students. Almost half the kids surveyed admit they've consumed alcohol.

As for the compliance detail, the reaction from those minors involved – surprise! They can't believe – even though their IDs say clearly they're under 21, that they keep getting served.

"Well I'm mainly surprised at the lack of hesitation by the people," the 17-year-old told us. "They see the ID… grab the beer and the wine. It seems like they're not even paying attention or reading ID."

The 18 year old said, "I don't know why they keep serving us, even when they see our IDs and see that we're not old enough."

The majority of the restaurants did the right thing. And when deputies let the servers and managers know they'd passed the test, owners slammed high fives with their servers and shouted, "Way to go!"

"We try to have everyone that comes in, no matter what they look like, no matter how old there are, check ID," Karen Belloni said. "That's what we try to install in all of our employees: Always, just check, check, check!"

The servers who did get in trouble the night of our sting were issued $500 fines, with a misdemeanor charge.

Because the state is notified about those citations, business owners could still find themselves in trouble with the state agency that oversees alcohol sales. They'll warn the business owner and tell them to expect another unscheduled compliance check.

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