ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Everyone knows the drinking age is 21. But how often are teenagers allowed to just walk into a bar and order a drink with no problem? On Special Assignment, KRQE News 13 shows viewers how New Mexico State Police agents aim to find out, through special operations.
“Alcohol itself presents many dangers,” explained Captain Suzanne Skasik, of the New Mexico State Police Special Investigations Unit.
The warnings are posted everywhere: Must be 21 years old to drink.
“When it falls into the hands of minors, the negative consequences are really endless,” Captain Skasik said. It’s why the New Mexico State Police Special Investigations Unit sends underage customers into restaurants, bars and liquor stores, to see if servers are following the law.
In Santa Fe, the teens were instructed by State Police agents to tell the truth about their ages if asked, and show the servers their actual IDs. They’re vertical and feature red letters that say they’re under 21.
In an April operation, an underage female walked into a Santa Fe Applebee’s. Police audio recordings captured each interaction.
“Can I just get a Bud Light?” the teen asked the server. “Yeah, sure. Tall or pint size?”
“Uh, whatever size,” she replied. “Pint size?” “Sure,” the teen replied.
And just like that, an 18-year-old was served a beer. That’s when the state police agent swooped in.
“I’m an agent with State Police. We’re doing a minor compliance check. There was a young lady that was sitting there. How old was she?” The agent asked the server.
“Ok, as far as her age, I’m gonna take a hit, she could have been underage,” the server said. “I did not check her ID, officer.”
This happened over and over again.
During the operation, underage buyers were sold alcohol at 14 different bars, restaurants and stores. In 10 of the establishments, workers did not ask for an ID. But in the other four, they did check the underage IDs, and served the teens alcohol anyway.
“Man, you guys look younger and younger,” a Market Street cashier told an underage buyer while looking over her ID. “You guys surprise me.”
After checking the underage ID, he sold her a can of wine anyway. The clerk later told the State Police agent he must have punched the wrong numbers into the checkout system.
“I didn’t put in the correct date of birth?” The clerk stated. “Obviously not,” the State Police agent replied. “Yeah, cause it said 2000 on it, on the ID,” the clerk replied.
At Santa Fe Bar and Grill, the bartender looked over another teen’s ID for about 10 seconds before approving the sale. He seemed surprised when the State Police agent told him what just happened.
“You served a 19-year-old, OK? She’s underage,” the State Police agent told the server.
“I’m sorry. I looked at it, it said ‘2000,’” he replied. “It’s a vertical. It’s big letters in red,” the agent told him.
Each server was given a citation that goes against their license with Alcohol and Gaming. The 14 businesses where they work can be hit with heavier fines.
“The penalties vary, so the first offense can be $1,000 to $2,000 and a day of suspended sales, and the penalties progress from there,” Captain Skasik explained.
Skasik said an operation like this is not about agents playing a gotcha game. It’s about educating the public.
“When our agents are in the field and they start to talk to a clerk, a server, a manager who may have made the sale, it leads to further discussion,” Captain Skasik said.
That’s what happened in these cases. Agents reminded servers that checking ID isn’t just about checking someone’s birth date. It’s also an opportunity to assess if someone’s already drunk.
Since DWI is a major problem statewide, servers taking that extra minute can make all the difference, Skasik said.
“They get busy, they feel pressure if there’s a line and that’s when mistakes are made,” Captain Skasik explained. “But the consequences are the same regardless.”
“It’s a lesson learned,” the cashier from Market Street told the State Police agent. “OK, I appreciate that,” the agent said. “It’s a lesson for all of us,” the cashier’s supervisor said.
So how do State Police find these underage buyers for these operations? Skasik said they’re found through community outreach programs, such as free classes the New Mexico State Police offer at restaurants, or through community groups such as M.A.D.D.
Skasik said State Police will only use people between the ages of 18-20 and pay them $10 an hour during the operations, which take place statewide throughout the year.
Servers from the following 14 establishments were cited for serving alcohol to minors during the operation:
Applebee’s / 4246 Cerrillos Rd. 87507
Market Street / 600 N. Guadalupe St. 87506
Santa Fe Bar and Grill / 187 Paseo De Peralta 32615
Pink Adobe and Guadalupe Cafe / 406 Old Santa Fe Trail 87501
Sabor Peruano / 167 Paseo De Peralta 87507
Smith’s / 2308 Cerrillos Rd. 87505
Honeymoon Brewery / 907 W. Alameda St. Unit B 87501
Jambo Cafe / 2010 Cerrillos Rd. Ste 13 87505
Rodeo Plaza Liquors / 2801 Rodeo Rd. Suite B-12 87507
Cafe Fina / 624 Old Las Vegas Hwy. 87505
Cafe Sonder / 326 S. Guadalupe St. 87505
Counter Culture / 930 Baca St. 87505
Casa Chimayo / 409 W. Water St. 87505
Masa Sushi / 927 W. Alameda 87501