Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Clubs must be careful about undeage admissions and drinking

When I substitute taught in northern Virginia high schools for a couple of stretches, I sometimes saw attendance rosters with birthdates printed.

In the Spring of 2007, a student who had been in a class happened to be at one of the gay clubs in the District and spotted me as I entered alone, and made a wisecrack. I was surprised. I believe that the student was very likely to be only 16, because I could recall the roster. At school, he had made an earlier inappropriate wisecrack, recognizing me in class, when I had been there a month before, which I had simply ignored. When he flagged me in the bar, I simply left the premises immediately (and alone) for the evening. I took no other action. (I most definitely did not take a photograph; we all know that pictures of underage drinking tend to wind up on the Internet.) However, I decided not to return to substitute teaching this fall, although there were other considerations.

The next time I visited the bar I told the management about the incident, as well as one other club. (I believe I had seen one other such student in a club earlier.) The management said, by all means, point the person out if it happens again. I did notice shortly thereafter tighter scrutiny of ID’s and more visible signs of age verification laws.

I will not name the clubs, schools or students involved, but I am writing this entry to underscore the importance of a potentially serious problem, for clubs, their employees, and particularly teachers who visit clubs. I am not sure what the legal requirement on teachers would be when they observe underage drinking off school property, especially for subs. (I welcome comments on that.)

Most clubs require age 21 to enter, with many having one night a week allowing age 18 with no-alcohol wristbands. Generally, in most communities (I presume this is true of the District of Columbia), unaccompanied persons under 18 may not enter an establishment where alcohol is served unless some other “legitimate” major product or service is offered (like full meals, shows, movies, etc). Business owners say that they do admit under 21 often because of the legal risk of shutdown, fines, or loss of license. Some clubs will admit well known “celebrities” over 18 and under 21 with good personal “reputations” if they trust the individuals not to drink.

It is not clear what the liability of a club is if a minor gets in and drinks because of a fake ID and the club used good-faith efforts to check it. What happens if the minor drives home and gets into an accident while DWI? (Bartenders are not supposed to serve intoxicated people, and security is supposed to remove people who are visibly incapacitated. But that applies to everyone, including legal adults.)

Most illegal underage entries occur because of fake ID cards. An episode of Everwood in Season 2 had the character Ephram getting a fake card from a back room shop and then getting into trouble. Many websites discuss the problem. There was a sting in the Washington that netted an arrest later in 2007. Fake ID cards are a major security threat, and fake DL’s have been involved with identity theft.

Except for the religious right, most employers may not care about persons showing up in the web in gay discos (as was the case a couple of generations ago with the police raids and newspaper arrest lists), but they do care about underage drinking, from all of the media reports about “reputation defender” and the Internet.

The media in the Washington area has reported many instances of straight bars losing licenses because of violence on or near their premises. Some of the problems have been in particular areas of the city, even as these areas experience real estate development. One particularly horrific incident resulted in a bar employee being severly burned. I’ve always felt that business establishments should not be punished for the behavior of a few patrons, especially when the behavior happens outside the premises. Violent incidents in gay clubs have been very rare. There were one or two incidents at Tracks in the 1990s. Near the Velvet Nation, now closed because of stadium-related real estate development, aggressive panhandling was common, and I once called the police when witnessing weapons trafficking a few blocs away (in 2004). But none of this was related to the patrons or employees of the club.

Update: Jan. 10, 2008

Clubs may find the fake ID card easier to prevent after new security rules associated with the "Real ID" law go into effect. Americans born after 1964 will have to get secure driver's licenses within the next six years. The detailed AP story is by Devlin Barrett, and is available here. The rules are meant to deter illegal immigrants, but they probably will help reduce the underage drinking problems, too.

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