Arlington Police Not Currently Interested in 'Shoulder Tap' Stings


(Friday, June 29, 2007 9:48 AM EDT)

Arlington County police say they are aggressive in their efforts to stop young people from illegally obtaining alcohol, but stop short of conducting stings of the type taking place in neighboring Fairfax County.

Fairfax County police, like those in Arlington, for years have sent underage cadets into convenience stores, pharmacies, grocery outlets and liquor stores to test whether clerks would illegally sell them alcohol.

Since last summer, however, the Fairfax department has targeted a different segment of the population: adult customers heading into those same stores.

In these so-called “shoulder-tap” operations, underage cadets approach people entering stores and ask the adults to buy alcohol for them. If adults ask if the cadets are 21, the cadets respond with their true age.

If customers buy alcohol for the minors, a plain-clothes officer watching the transaction will signal a nearby uniformed officer, who then confronts the purchaser and makes the arrest.

Police have conducted six such operations since the program began last year. So far, 263 adults have been stopped and 35 charged with supplying or purchasing alcoholic beverages for persons under age 21, said Don Gotthardt, a police spokesman.

The charge is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. The average fine levied so far has been about $150, he said.

The program, which is part of the police department's Youth Alcohol/Business Compliance enforcement campaign, has a 100-percent conviction rate so far, although six or seven arrested people have yet to stand trial.

A spokesman for the Arlington County Police Department said it does not conduct similar operations.

“Our enforcement efforts are focused on preventing the sale of alcohol directly to underage customers,” Arlington police spokesman John Lisle said.

“Typically, the enforcement is conducted by our district teams, who send underage cadets into stores, bars and restaurants to see if they can purchase alcohol,” Lisle said.

If an employee of a business sells alcohol to an underage person, they are charged by officers on the scene. If the business does not sell the youth alcohol, it receives a follow-up letter from the police, congratulating the business for taking the appropriate action.

Gotthardt said he believes the Fairfax program does not constitute inducement to commit a crime.

“The mere asking of someone to do something is not entrapment,” he said. “The fact that they decide to do something [does] not cause somebody to commit a crime if they did not already have a propensity to do that.”

Some of those arrested have expressed sympathy for underage drinkers, Gotthardt said.

“They remember what it was like when they were that age,” he said.

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