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NC: Is state cracking down on alcohol law violations?

NC: Is state cracking down on alcohol law violations?



By Emily Patrick

September 11, 2015

Festival organizers sometimes react to them like ants at a picnic, or more accurately, cops at a kegger. But to do their job, state ALE agents go wherever alcohol is poured. Public safety, alcohol licenses and the money that comes from them are at stake.


At least four of the region’s nine state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents in May made their way into Asheville’s Beer City Festival — where more than 30 area breweries were pouring — and issued 11 violation reports. Agents in July also attended Oskar Blues’ Burning Can festival in Brevard and have gone to LEAF Downtown and many other festivals.


In most cases, agents took no action or issued warnings, but their recent appearances have raised concerns among festival organizers.


“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Billy Pyatt, vice president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, which hosts Beer City Festival. “I don’t think anyone’s afraid. It’s uncertainty.”


Breweries aren’t the only businesses affected by the ALE. The agency inspects any outlet with an ABC permit, including restaurants, bars and music venues. Owners declined to comment on recent actions by the agents, citing concerns about singling themselves out. Losing an alcohol license could cost them a primary source of revenue.


That reluctance to talk came as no surprise to Derek Allen, an attorney at Ward and Smith, which represents area breweries and beer events.


“Good,” he said. “There were a couple of articles and comments early on that look like complaints putting the regulatory industries under fire.”


Even the beer-drinking public is taking note. On YouTube, beer lovers expressed disdain for the enforcement agency with an overdub of the German World War II film “Downfall.” In the clip, subtitles have been altered so that Hitler complains he is being persecuted by ALE agents.


But is ALE truly more active than in years past, or are more people simply taking notice?


Over the past five years, ALE enforcement has been in flux. In 2010, ALE agents in the Western District sent 51 violation reports to the ABC Commission for adjudication. That number fell every year through 2013, when the agents submitted just 22 violation reports.


Forty-six reports were made last year. Through August of this year, ALE agents have submitted 40 violation reports to the state.


“If I were cracking down, there would have been people who were cited and put in the state criminal justice system,” said Special Agent in Charge Stacy Cox, who heads the regional ALE office. “We’re trying our darnedest to build relationships.”


Pints of contention


At least three high-profile incidents put the ALE in the spotlight this year.


At the Brewers Alliance’s Beer City Festival in May, agents asked four breweries to close their booths because employees had illegally consumed alcohol while working, according to ALE reports. The agents reported seeing several brewery owners violating the same law, one of whom registered a 0.24 blood alcohol level, the reports stated. The legal limit for driving in North Carolina is 0.08.


In all, 11 of the more than 30 breweries from around the region received violation reports. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which assesses violation reports and determines whether fines or alcohol license revocation is necessary, didn’t take punitive action. Breweries received written warnings in July and August, according to ABC spokesperson Agnes Stevens.


At Oskar Blues’ Burning Can festival in Brevard, the agents did not issue violation reports. To remain in compliance with the law, Oskar Blues waived the $45 admission fee for the music and beer event.


After those difficulties, nonprofit MountainTrue canceled a beer festival in Hendersonville, citing unclear regulations.


Pyatt said it’s more important than ever to understand alcohol laws. Every year brings more breweries and more festivals where people drink alcohol.


But for every event where the ALE points out problems, there are others that go smoothly, such as LEAF Downtown, where agents simply supervised the festivities without issuing reports.


“Just in the last few months there have been a couple of high-profile instances,” Pyatt said. “With the growth in the industry, and the number of people exposed … it just makes sense that there’s going to be a few more people looking into how craft brewers and their patrons are complying with regulations.”


Outnumbered 2,900 to one


The ALE is a tiny organization. At just over 100 agents statewide, it’s less than half the size of the Asheville Police Department.


“We have the same sworn amount of personnel that we had in 1992,” said Mark Senter, branch head of the N.C. ALE. “We have the same issues that a lot of police departments do now, keeping personnel because of pay and losing personnel to other agencies.”


The ALE has not grown with the number of alcohol outlets. In 1992, there were 15,000 ABC permits in North Carolina for the ALE to monitor. This year, there are more than 29,000, Senter said.


In the ALE’s Western District, eight agents patrol 16 counties, and three of those agents are assigned to the Asheville area. In addition to alcohol, the agents monitor bingo, boxing, lottery and drug issues. They are authorized to investigate, cite, arrest and otherwise react to criminal offenses. They can charge alleged offenders with crimes just like police officers.


But the ALE isn’t authorized to charge or penalize businesses. If its agents discover a business breaking the law, they send a report to the state ABC Commission, which determines what punitive measures are appropriate, if any.


The fluctuating year-to-year number of violation reports in the Western District loosely parallels statewide trends. From 2010 to 2013, the number of violation reports fell, but last year, they spiked by 43 percent.


Senter attributes the changing number of violation reports to staffing changes, population growth and growth in the number of alcohol outlets.


“Complaints from citizens also: If the population is growing, typically we’ll get more complaints,” he said.


ALE stations its agents where the situation is most dire, and sometimes that results in lots of people working on the same case, he said. The resulting manpower vacuum leads to fewer violation reports overall.


“Even one large investigation that requires multiple agents makes a huge impact for ALE,” he said. “An example would be say if there was an outlet that had documented cases of violence, the majority of the district staff could be involved in interviewing those in the neighborhood, or pulling and analyzing police calls for service, conducting police interviews and writing affidavits to submit a report to the ABC Commission recommending a summary suspension.”


Last year, the state legislature removed the ALE from the Department of Public Safety and put it under the jurisdiction of the State Bureau of Investigation. Senter said the move didn’t change the way the agency enforces the law or the number of violation reports it issues.


Increased enforcement to come?


In the Hickory District, which borders the Asheville area’s Western District, Special Agent in Charge Omar Qureshi said ALE has streamlined some of its processes in recent years, leading to greater efficiency. The agents spend less time on paperwork and more time in the field, potentially observing violations.


District offices now communicate directly with the ABC Commission instead of “playing tag,” as he described it, with the state office.


“It was just a bunch of red tape really,” he said. “It’s a whole lot easier, a whole lot faster.”


He said advances in software and technology also help the agents do their jobs more efficiently. They have wireless cards and printers in their cars. They used to make multiple trips between permit holders and the office, even for simple paperwork.


He said he’s excited about a new software program for state enforcement agencies that he hopes will come online in September. He said the ALE will probably get more work done as a result, which could mean more violation reports.


“There probably is going to be an increase,” he said. “Instead of hours or days that it used to take to get things through, you’re talking minutes.”


Does that constitute an enforcement crackdown? Qureshi said no.


“It would be very apparent if we were going to organize a concentrated enforcement effort,” he said. “We’d be 20, 30 guys into a certain operation.”


Contesting rules, not regulators


In Asheville, Special Agent in Charge Stacy Cox watched the Hitler overdub video that derided the ALE with amusement.


“It was kind of comical,” she said. “We all have a great sense of humor.”


Cox relocated to Asheville in 2014 from the Greensboro District, but she’s also worked for the ALE in Charlotte and Hickory. She said what’s surprised her most about Asheville is the recent public backlash against the ALE. She said she felt “blindsided.”


For Cox, enforcement is also about prevention. If everyone understands the law and works to follow it, there will be fewer incidents.


She said the ALE offers training courses to local businesses several times a year. She answers questions when alcohol permit holders call, and she and her agents recently met with the Brewers Alliance.


Pyatt, of the Brewers Alliance, said the two groups are trying to work together.


“They’re not bad people,” he said. “They’re smart, logical people who don’t want to hurt the industry.”


And part of being logical, he acknowledges, is enforcing at festivals and large gatherings.


“They are not pointing out our industry and going after it,” he said. “That being said, when there are high-profile events, they’re going to be around.”


He said the Brewers Alliance is channeling its efforts toward legislation, although he wasn’t ready to say what laws they’ll seek to change.


“The rules were written a long time ago,” he said. “But the industry’s very different than it was a long time ago, and we need to look at the rules that don’t fit anymore.”


The craft brewing industry has reached a critical mass that he hopes will give it some leverage. He explained that the Brewers Alliance plans to work with the North Carolina Brewers Guild and legal support to push for those legislative changes.


“No one ever dreamed there would be 4,000 craft breweries in the United States when those laws were written,” he said. “You can complain about the rules and try to work to change the ones that need to be revised, but in the meantime, the ALE and the ABC have a set of rules that they have to administer and regulate.”