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Training session gives refresher on liquor liability issues

Amilia Sutherland pours a drink at the Park Rapids Eagles Club. Sutherland started bartending in Wisconsin, which requires each prospective bartender to attend a course in responsible serving before being employed. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

To serve or not to serve?

It's the thorny question alcohol servers and liquor store clerks face daily. It's a collision between commerce and public safety, morality versus free will.

"We have a significant problem with underage drinking" in the region, said Sara Bowles, chemical health coordinator for the Hubbard County Youth Drug and Alcohol Task Force.

Aside from the legal issues of seven citations issued at Park Rapids Area High School over Memorial Day weekend, Bowles said there are legitimate and documented health reasons kids shouldn't drink.

Because the adolescent brain is still developing until age 25, an underage drinker's brain chemistry just isn't wired to absorb alcohol in those developmental stages, Bowles told a group of alcohol servers Tuesday.

"Using alcohol (for kids) teaches the brain it's a normal pathway," Bowles said. "That's my soap box."

The potential for adolescent addition is quadrupled during those developmental stages, Bowles said.

The task force sponsors two training sessions annually for alcohol servers and liquor store clerks, to refresh them on the dram shop laws of liquor liability.

Taking the course reduces the establishment's dram shop insurance premiums.

But as the economy seems stalled and unemployment rises, hard times seem to breed hard drinking.

Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers and Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer say their departments have experienced a steady incline in alcohol-related crimes and driving offenses.

Consider the following:

n Two mothers are currently facing charges in Hubbard County District Court, charged with drunken driving while their kids were in the vehicles at the time. Both are additionally charged with reckless endangerment.

n A Park Rapids woman was recently sentenced to three years in jail for a drunken driving accident last summer that severely injured another Park Rapids resident and her daughter. The driver was traveling late at night without headlights, on the wrong side of the highway.

n A Nevis woman is about to be sentenced in another drunken driving accident. She and her best friend, who was seriously injured, had been drinking all day when the accident occurred before 4 p.m.

n A man whose blood alcohol limit was .279 purchased alcohol, then promptly got into an accident in the parking lot of the establishment, injuring a woman loading her car.

Alcohol servers know it's against the law to serve minors, or to sell alcohol outside of hours set by law.

Most say they regularly card customers under the age of 30, even 40.

"I'm not in the business of guessing age," said Bob Leslie, manager of the Pelican Rapids municipal liquor store. "Card them. If they hesitate, chances are it's not their ID."

But it's the sticky question of serving the career alcoholic, the customer that is "visibly intoxicated" that establishments seek to curtail little success.

Avoiding third party liability for illegal alcohol sales was the aim of the workshop led by Leslie. He trains alcohol clerks and servers for the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association.

If a customer isn't slurring his or her words, isn't staggering, doesn't smell of alcohol, do you make the sale?

"Use your judgment and common sense," Leslie said. As he passed out a worksheet listing common signs of intoxication, he added, "I know people who act like this when they're sober."

If in doubt, you should not serve the person as long as the denial isn't based on race, creed, color or sex, Leslie advised.

But "under the influence" could mean the customer is on drugs.

Policing morality brings tough calls, Leslie said. He advised one establishment owner that she could not refuse service to a pregnant woman, but said she could try to persuade the customer it's a terrible thing to do.

Some licenses of chronic drinkers have restrictions on the back of them. Leslie advised against policing people based on their restrictions. "Alcohol restrictions are their responsibility," he advised.

Seminars such as Leslie's "make us more mindful of what we do, how we do it," said one server, declining to give her name.

Servers have developed their own tricks of the trade to slow down fast drinkers or assess a customer's condition before pouring a refill.

One server said she had a mumbling customer come in. She couldn't tell if he was drunk, sick or possibly disabled so she struck up a friendly conversation with him to assess his condition before she served him.

"We've been known to pour straight pop," said another server, adding that watering down drinks is commonplace with problem drinkers.

"The really good drunks keep eye contact with you," said another server, discounting the symptom that "lack of focus" may be a sign of intoxication.

"The sale is secondary," said another server. "Safety's first. We want them to have a good time, But we also want them to come back."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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