Last Friday, officers from Irvine Police Department, Cal State Fullerton Police Department and Alcoholic Beverage Commission convened for a 7 p.m. briefing at the UC Irvine Police Department. Their mission: to stake out the local supermarkets and ticket adults who purchased alcohol for minors.
Using what is called a ‘shoulder tap’ operation, police officers in civilian clothing sit in unmarked cars and in other discrete positions until they receive the signal to make an arrest. A pair of under-aged volunteers, called decoys, stand at the entrance to the supermarket and ask random strangers to buy them beer.
It’s part of an education campaign to increase awareness about underage drinking,’ said UCIPD Corporal Charles Chon, the officer in charge of last Friday’s operation.
If an unlucky stranger exits a store with an extra case of Bud Light and hands it to the decoys, he is approached by ABC and UCIPD officers and arrested. Violators are cited and released minutes after their arrest but, depending on a judge’s ruling, fines can range between $300 to $1,000. After the arrest police officers returned to their positions and reset the trap within minutes.
Last fall, the New University reported the UCIPD’s targeting of adults purchasing alcohol for minors. Its tactics have remained largely the same and they still raise considerable controversy.
‘The [police] are creating a situation that would have otherwise not have happened. They’re being tempters, not police,’ said a second-year biology major, who requested anonymity.
‘They shouldn’t be setting people up for failure like that,’ said second-year computer science engineer Tommy Echols.
‘It’s for a good cause,’ said Chon. ‘We are doing what we can to increase awareness about the dangers of underage drinking.’
Despite the controversy, police shoulder tap operations have been going strong here for years. ‘We hit all over Irvine,’ Chon said.
The resilience of the operations is indebted to a state grant given to UCI and Cal State Fullerton, designed to lower the rates of underage drinking in the two college communities. ‘There are other programs where we send decoys to bars and liquor stores. We actually cite the clerk,’ said ABC officer Eric Christofferson. ‘Not tonight. We arrest the buyers.’
There are criteria for those who get targeted.
‘Stay away from the elderly, the mentally handicapped, women with babies,’ Christofferson told the decoys during the briefing. ‘And moms and dads with kids.
During the briefing, decoys were given special instructions regarding their persistence in getting a stranger to buy them alcohol.
‘Don’t beg, don’t negotiate. Ask them to buy once. Just keep it really simple,’ said ABC officer Trung Vo.
The arrests made Friday night reflected these criteria. Police officers first arrested a 21-year-old third-year UCI student. He was picking up beer with his fraternity brothers when he agreed to buy for the decoys.
The second arrest was a 21-year-old full-time office clerk who lived in the community. When asked why she purchased alcohol for minors she said, ‘I guess I felt bad for them. It seemed like a nice thing to do.’
The nice thing to do is not necessarily the legal thing to do. State law dictates that anyone can be arrested for intending to furnish alcohol to a minor.
‘People know that it’s the wrong thing to do but they take a chance and do it anyway,’ Chon said.
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