“…it has become clear, that during adolescence…the brain is highly plastic and shaped by experience…Alcohol appears to interfere with the changes in circuitry that occur during learning.” –Dr. Aaron White, Duke University. Keep up to date with local and nationwide coverage of the underage drinking epidemic.
To Staff Sgt. Perry Barnhill, the excuses are almost humorous by now.
“She was cute.”
“I got confused.”
Barnhill can sound off the same excuses he’s heard over the years from individuals caught selling alcohol to minors without missing a beat. He’s in charge of enforcing underage drinking laws for the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office and at this point, he says the excuses tend to sound the same.
“One comment that I just heard from a store clerk was that the kid was just close enough,” he said with a heavy sigh. “That’s just sad.”
Thanks to a state grant, Barnhill is able to work with a small group of 18- to 20-year-olds to check an establishment’s compliance with the law.
In 2011, he personally issued 20 misdemeanor citations to individuals who either sold to a minor or bought alcohol on behalf of a minor. This year, his tally is already up to 25.
As enforcement has gone up, Barnhill said, the number of citations he’s given out has as well. He’s not sure if it’s due to more stores selling to minors or if there’s just more enforcement taking place.
“If you look at the numbers, you can see we have a problem,” he said.
Bars and restaurants also recognize the seriousness of selling to a minor. If an employee is caught selling alcohol to a minor, the store is slapped with at least a $4,000 fine and can possibly lose its alcohol license.
Four years ago, the Pressbox Sports Bar and Grill was hit with an underage alcohol violation, said Toma Bartlett, the bar’s owner.
The incident led Bartlett to make sure it never happened again.
“We bought ID screening equipment and instead of just letting the minor go when they get caught, we looked into our options,” he said. “Now we call the police every time a minor tries to come in.”
However, Bartlett said it’s not unusual for at least one employee to report that a minor tried to sneak in over the weekend.
“We end up telling the minor that while we want their business, they have to come in when they’re 21,” he said. “Usually they only need to wait a few weeks.”
Jessie Barrios, head bartender at Canyon Crest Dining and Event Center, said he doesn’t see regular problems with underage drinkers trying to slip in. It’s more of an issue on the holidays, he said, especially when people are dressed up for Halloween.
Josh Popa, a manager at the Anchor Bistro and Bar, said neither he or his employees have caught a minor yet trying to purchase alcohol.
“We ID everyone who looks under 40 or if we’re suspicious,” he said.
Twin Falls County Sheriff Tom Carter said education is one way to help reduce the number of citations.
“We try to talk to store owners and the clerks about how vitally important it is to not sell to minors,” he said. “But ultimately, people need to take responsibility for their actions.”
And while Barnhill knows he works a thankless job, he said he doesn’t have plans of stopping.
“I would love to go out on a shift and not issue out any citations,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”