Bar sting stung by state
Maine official gives PPD new rules
By Chris Busby
The couple walked into The White Heart, a cocktail lounge on Congress Street, together on a Thursday evening. The gentleman was clearly over 21, approaching or having just entered middle age, and his female companion “looked 30,” said owner Mary Hodge.
They chatted together at the bar, talking about different wines and so on, for what may have been as long as 20 minutes before the lady ordered a beer. Bartender Tyler Briggs, who’d carded others at the bar during the interim, neglected to card this mature-looking customer with an older companion.
That was a mistake.
The local TV news crew arrived the next day. The reporter asked Briggs’ boss, bar manager Andrea Spencer, if she planned to fire the bartender for serving an underage patron. Then Briggs’ fine arrived: $450, plus a $100 processing fee.
The underage patron was actually an undercover agent working for the Portland Police Department. Name: Erin Curry. Age: 20.
The Portland Police Department’s sting operation began in late February with visits to 35 stores, bars and pubs – 20 of which failed the test. A month later, cops nabbed 15 of the 42 places they targeted – among them, two Big Apple convenience stores nailed for the second time.
On April 26, they hit 33 businesses, but only fooled three. One of them was The White Heart.
Capt. Vern Malloch, head of the PPD’s patrol division, said these “compliance checks” will continue “periodically.”
If they do, it’s unlikely they’ll be conducted quite the same way. And if they are done in a similar fashion, it’s unlikely the violation will be prosecuted by state officials, who handle such citations after they are issued, negotiating fines and other penalties.
That’s because since the last sting, the Portland Police Department has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maine Department of Public Safety by which they agree to follow new guidelines for these undercover operations. Among those rules:
• “Department will utilize a ‘youthful appearing’ minor(s) between the ages of 18 and 20…. Minor(s) will not attempt to alter their appearance; males will have no facial hair and females will wear little or no makeup.” Minors must be “representative to their age group.”
• “Officer(s) will enter the premises separately from minor(s) and engage in appropriate social conduct while monitoring activity from inside the premises…. Officer(s) and minor(s) will avoid contact to alleviate defense that officer(s) presence implied minor(s) were of legal age.”
If the PPD conducted the sting the same way at The White Heart tomorrow night, Hodge said she was told by state liquor licensing and inspections head Jeff Austin that there’d be no fine. The rules, it seems, have changed.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the rules for bar stings – as opposed to store stings – have finally been written, and now the PPD has to play by them.
“There were no protocols written for on-premise [sting operations],” said Austin. “If it happens again tomorrow, bar owners should know the state has taken over those guidelines.”
That’s little comfort for Hodge, Briggs, or any of the others duped into failing to card an agent when the PPD was playing by its own rules. The cost of hiring a lawyer to fight the citation in district court would equal or surpass the fine for pleading guilty. Then there’s the negative publicity, and the black mark on the bar’s license at a time when city officials are scrutinizing liquor and entertainment license renewal requests like never before.
“The problem is, the damage is done,” said Portland attorney Gary Prolman. Prolman is representing Old Port bar owner Tom Manning in his effort to keep operating Digger’s/Liquid Blue. The City Council voted to yank Manning’s licenses for the combination pub and dance club last night, though the matter will be appealed to state authorities, who will conduct their own hearing on the liquor license renewal request.
Liquid Blue was nabbed in the first wave of the sting. According to Prolman and the club’s staff, a female Portland police officer known to do undercover work on other types of cases showed up with another female. A doorman asked the officer if she was working undercover that evening, and was told she was, so he and the other bouncer let the pair in without carding or charging them, according to Prolman and bar staff.
The underage undercover agent accompanying the officer ordered and was served an alcoholic beverage.
The next month, another of Manning’s drinking and dancing establishments, Cake Restaurant, was cited for the same violation. According to Prolman, the agent this time was a bulky male approaching six feet and seven inches in height – but still short of the legal age.
Prolman said when he complained to Austin about the sting at Digger’s, Austin said, “‘I’m giving ’em a pass on this one,'” referring to the PPD. But Prolman said he was assured a citation stemming from a sting conducted in a similar way would not be pursued by the state again.
Portland Police Chief Tim Burton declined to comment on the new guidelines and directed questions to Capt. Malloch. Malloch said state liquor enforcement officials had contacted the PPD about its sting operation, but “only to commend us.”
According to Malloch, the PPD showed state officials its “operational program” for the stings before they began, “and they agreed it was acceptable.”
Asked if he felt the agents involved were of a “youthful” appearance or “representative to their age group,” Malloch said, “our position is they do not look older than their age group. And in the case of disputed [citations], let a judge decide if there are issues.”
Malloch said there were instances when an officer and agent entered a bar together and hung out before ordering drinks, but that was done in the interest of the minor’s safety. He said he’d be “uncomfortable with establishments, like Fore Play” – an Old Port sports bar on Fore Street – “having them come in [unattended].”
“The intent by the Portland PD was clearly to put some scare into everybody that there’s this huge underage drinking problem, and there isn’t – and they got caught doing it,” said Prolman, a former member of the city’s citizen police review committee.
“To me, that makes me distrust the Portland police,” Prolman continued. “They’re supposed to be building trust with you, but they’ve been very deceitful…. They’re showing their true colors.”