The Case for Mandatory Liquor ID Checks

February 14, 2011

Last year the Indiana General Assembly took an important step toward reducing sales of alcoholic beverages to minors. They’re now on the verge of undoing that – all because some grumpy old people don’t like being carded.

Please senators, do not repeal the law that required universal ID check of retail alcohol buyers. Of all the policies available to deter underage drinking, few have the potential to be as effective. Every study on the subject confirms that lax supervision at the point of sale is a major contributor to underage drinking. How could anyone in good conscience choose adult convenience over the health and safety of young people?

The House voted 91-7 to change the ID law so that it would apply only to potential buyers who appear 40 or younger. This leaves the discretion with the store clerk, and history shows clerks aren’t willing or aren’t good at guessing age.

Perhaps lawmakers forgot the evidence that prompted the ID law in the first place. Most notably, the Indiana State Excise Police conducted the Survey for Alcohol Compliance from 2007 to 2009.  Prospective underage “customers” 18 to 20 accompanied officers into alcoholic beverage establishments and tried to purchase alcohol.

Statewide the survey showed a 35 percent non-compliance rate. In other words, underage customers were able to make a purchase 35 percent of the time. Non-compliance ranged from a low of 12 percent at private clubs to a high of 44 percent at restaurants. Package stores had a 40 percent non-compliance, hotels 35 percent, groceries 26 percent and drug stores 21 percent.

Those statistics echo data compiled elsewhere. In a similar survey by the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, underage buyers were successful almost half the time and once in every three tries at 80 percent of businesses.

A study by the Schneider Institute for Health Policy at Brandeis University provides further ammunition in support of mandatory carding:

Retailers … have instructed their employees to verify the age of young customers and decline sales to underage buyers. But national data on sales to minors and surveys of youth behavior indicate that these instructions have largely gone unheeded. The many demands on store clerks’ attention, especially when stores are crowded, and the desire to avoid delays and confrontation are contributing factors. Confusion in calculating the age of customers and recognize fake IDs are additional factors.”

There is one failsafe remedy. Card everyone every time. Under Indiana’s current law, establishments or clerks that fail to card may be charged with a Class B misdemeanor and face up to 180 days in jail. It’s telling that since the ID law took effect on July 1, “It appears that no misdemeanor charges have been filed at the state level,” according to Legislative Services Agency.

Randy Zion, a package store owner since 1973 and chair of the legislative committee of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, says the law is working. “We used to be inundated with minors trying to be served. When asked for an ID, the minor would say that it was in their car and would not return. Now they don’t even try because everyone must show identification.”

The problem with the mandatory ID law is not that it applies to folks who look 50 but that it only applies to outlets that sell alcohol for off-premise consumption, i.e. package stores, groceries and drug stores. There is no logical reason to exclude restaurants and bars. Indeed, as the Survey for Alcohol Compliance found, restaurants are the worst offenders. If the legislature wants to do something useful, it should extend the law’s requirements to any place where alcohol is sold.

In the debate over repealing the law, Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said to widespread agreement, “It was stupid.”

What’s stupid is rescinding a law that by all accounts has done exactly what was intended. The safety of young people should trump complaints of constituents who are either too forgetful to bring along identification or too easily offended by a store clerk saying simply, “Your ID, please.”

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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