Montana lawmakers consider bill limiting business citations from alcohol compliance checks

Alcohol Compliance Checks
Posted at 7:21 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 11:19:07-05

HELENA — Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would limit when a business can be cited for failing an alcohol compliance check, or “sting.”

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee held a hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 129, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson.

The bill deals with “contrived events,” in which a law enforcement agency or other organization sends an underage person into a store, bar or other business to attempt to buy alcohol. If an employee fails to check their age and sells them alcohol, that individual can be cited for an illegal sale. The failure will also be reported to the Montana Department of Revenue, which can then issue a violation to the holder of the alcohol license.

SB 129 would prevent Revenue from issuing a business a violation for failing one of those checks, unless they failed three within a three-year period. Hertz said he saw the bill as a fairness issue for businesses that are giving their employees the proper training but could be impacted if one makes a mistake.

Representatives of bars, convenience stores and other businesses spoke in support of the bill. John Iverson, of the Montana Tavern Association, said business owners understood the value of these checks, as a way to make sure employees are following proper procedures. However, he said the number of checks has been growing, and a large percentage of violations are now linked to them.

“These should be learning opportunities,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the checkers to make sure they’re doing their job well; it’s an opportunity for the employers to make sure that the policies and procedures they put into place to prevent alcohol access by minors are working.”

Iverson told MTN a business that serves alcohol can have its license revoked for having four violations in a three-year period.

Joe McKenney, who owned the Cart Wheel Casino and Liquor Store in Great Falls from 2002 to 2020, said his business regularly went through four to six compliance checks each year. He argued the repercussions for failing a check are too high for what he said is usually a simple mistake.

“I’m happy to say we never failed,” he said. “I don’t know how, because human error happens.”

No one spoke in opposition to the bill during Wednesday's hearing.

SB 129 would not stop the Department of Revenue from issuing a violation if law enforcement investigates a complaint and finds a business made an unlawful sale.

Current state law lets the Department of Revenue consider “mitigating” or “aggravating” circumstances when deciding what penalty to give a license holder. One mitigating factor is if a violation comes from a sting.

Becky Schlauch, administrator of the department’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, said their policy is to give a reprimand to a business for its first failed compliance check.

Schlauch said the department had tallied 401 alcohol compliance checks in the last fiscal year. 64 of those were failed – about 16%. She told lawmakers that percentage had fluctuated over the years but has been going down recently.

SB 129 would not change the individual responsibility for an employee who made a sale to someone under 21 during a compliance check. They could still receive a citation from law enforcement.

In Lewis and Clark County, the sheriff’s office says they would typically only issue a warning for an employee’s first violation.

The committee took no immediate action on SB 129 Wednesday.