Liquor penalty change mulled

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Alcohol vendors that sell to minors -- particularly repeat offenders -- could soon face harsher penalties.

The Steamboat Springs City Council, which also is the city's liquor licensing authority, voted 4--1 on Tuesday to amend the municipal code and allow the council to suspend or revoke liquor licenses.

In September, nine of 11 liquor stores sold alcohol to someone younger than 21 during a police compliance check. Since then, the City Council has looked at what can be done to enforce the city's policies more strictly.

During the first reading of the proposed ordinance, police Capt. Joel Rae asked the City Council to consider changing the language of the ordinance, eliminating the punishment scale for third and fourth offenses and instead applying the harshest penalties to any establishment cited for selling alcohol to a minor three times or more. A second reading must be held before the proposal can become an ordinance.

The proposed ordinance outlines different suspension schedules based on how long after an offense a second, third or fourth offense is committed.

For example, if a business is cited for a third offense within 12 months of receiving a second offense, the business could face a 10- to 45-day suspension of its license.

A third offense would result in a license suspension of at least 15 days, and the council could revoke the store's license.

Rae hopes businesses will consider the harsher suspension schedule and ID any patron younger than 30.

"The message we're trying to send to liquor store owners and employees is, 'Look, we're going to continue doing these checks.' We want to make sure these people are not allowing minors to buy alcohol," Rae said.

Other than that approved change, the ordinance was not amended, though City Council President Paul Strong thought the City Council should be allowed to have more discretion when deciding how long a business loses its license, especially for a first offense.

The ordinance states that any establishment receiving a first offense would automatically receive a two-day to 15-day suspension.

Strong encouraged council members to consider changing that to a zero to 15-day suspension, in case an establishment provided examples of extenuating circumstances during the hearing the business owner must attend.

Strong thinks the City Council should have as much discretion as the police department when it cites businesses.

City Clerk Julie Jordan said every business that receives a citation for selling alcohol to a minor receives a criminal citation from the police department for the clerk who sold the liquor and the store owner.

Under the proposed changes, in addition to criminal penalties, cited businesses must appear before the City Council for an administrative hearing on their licenses.

Council member Ken Brenner said the tougher policies are long overdue because underage people buying alcohol in the city has been an issue for years.

"I think what we're trying to do is get some certainty for us as community members," he said. "We need to have some certainties that there are going to be consequences to this type of behavior."

Council member Loui Anto-nucci said he was concerned about the punishments.

"Personally, I think this is harsh," he said. "This doesn't address the criminal committing the offense. This should be something with a warning to the businesses who are first-time offenders."

Rae reiterated that minors who are caught buying alcohol receive citations and face possible jail time and fines.

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234 or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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