There’s one in every town — a convenience store where IDs aren’t necessary, or a low-lit bar whose servers never bother to ask.
In Jacksonville, Florida officials say, that bar was Rockets, where Stephanie Walls and her friends were drinking last April 4, the night their car slammed into a tree. Walls died and the 19-year-old driver was charged with vehicular manslaughter after registering a blood alcohol limit of .07.
In the past, that’s where the investigation would end. But now, under a new Florida initiative to track and punish those who sell alcohol to minors, the bar’s owners and three employees were arrested and charged with distributing to underage drinkers.
Along with Illinois and California, Florida is one of a few states trying to enforce long-standing laws on liquor sales to minors that had been largely been ignored.
“We saw that it was a critical gap in the enforcement process,” said Meg Shannon, spokeswoman for the Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which launched the program in June.
In most states, sworn law enforcement agents, under the umbrella of alcoholic beverage bureaus, are supposed to launch investigations the same way detectives would hunt down a killer. Once they find the source of the alcohol, they can file criminal or administrative charges, which can include fines or loss of liquor licenses.
But in the past, when minors were involved in fatal accidents, the source of that alcohol was not always traced back and the business or individual was rarely held responsible, Shannon said.
It took a grieving California mother, Lynn Goodwin, to change that, launching a program in her state that ultimately bred initiatives in Florida, Illinois, Arizona and Hawaii.
Highway patrol troopers had no answers when Goodwin asked where the alcohol came from when her daughter Casey was killed by an 18-year-old drunk driver in 2003.
“Everybody was sort of confused by that just because it wasn’t the standard,” said Goodwin, of Exeter. “I assumed there was a mechanism in place but that local law enforcement wasn’t using it or wasn’t aware of it, when in fact there wasn’t a mechanism.”
By 2004, California’s attorney general had formed a special task force, and Goodwin was helping the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control contact nearly 500 state law enforcement agencies to promote the program.
Since then, TRACE_ Target Responsibility for Alcohol Connected Emergencies _ has made 28 arrests and launched 135 investigations into 90 deaths, said Judy Matty, a district administrator for ABC.
A majority of incidents involve car accidents, but agents also investigate alcohol-related assaults, rapes and overdoses.
“We’ve always done these investigations. The difference was, we didn’t always hear about (alcohol-related deaths),” Matty said. “And if we didn’t hear about it, we couldn’t do anything.”
California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Marshall said the agency welcomes the partnership.
“It’s one thing to investigate the crash and issue the citation or make the arrests, but when it involves kids and alcohol you want to also find out where they got the alcohol and that takes a different investigation,” Marshall said. “In that regard ABC is able to provide tremendous resources to help us.”
In Illinois, officers can call a 24-hour hot line to deploy an investigator in alcohol-related deaths. The state’s Department of Transportation gave them $100,000 to start the program, launched in August. California is still operating on a $836,000 grant from the Office of Traffic Safety.
“The primary goal is not to arrest people, but to reduce the amount of alcohol that ends up in the hands of those who are underage,” said Ted Penesis, Industry Education Manager for the Illinois Liquor Commission.
Of course, the alcohol doesn’t always come from bars and liquor stores, and authorities are also using public awareness campaigns to caution parents who think it’s safer to host parties in their own homes.
Florida has made five arrests in Jacksonville, with cases pending in Tampa and Tallahassee, said Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco Division Director Steven Hougland.
Still in its early stages, Hougland’s program hasn’t received extra funding or hired any extra staff, and he has no idea how many cases they might handle. But the program is long overdue, he said.
“We just felt that it was very important that (alcohol suppliers) be held accountable,” Hougland said.
In Florida, alcohol is the most abused drug among underage kids, according to a 2005 survey from the Office of Drug Control. More than 56 percent of students reported lifetime use and 30 percent said they drank in the past 30 days.
“We acknowledge that the child used some bad judgment, but we’re also willing to acknowledge that adults are contributing to that risky behavior and that’s also harming our children,” Goodwin said. “In a lot of cases of underage alcohol sales, it’s merely for profit and that’s not OK when a life is lost.”
Rockets bar in Jacksonville “is an open and notorious location” for underage drinking, the state determined, and it could lose its liquor license. The owners and employees arrested in Stephanie Wall’s death bonded out of jail the same night they were arrested. They also face administrative charges.
Rockets’ owners did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Megan Thompson often hung out with Walls at Rockets. Most of the people who went there were 19 or 20, said Thompson, 21, who waitressed with Walls at a local barbecue pit. Still haunted by Walls’ death, she cried as she described the sweet, funny girl who befriended her when she was new in town.
Rockets should be held accountable, Thompson said.
“If they had followed the law my friend could still be here,” she said.
Was this article valuable?
Here are more articles you may enjoy.