On a chilly Friday night on a back road in Turner, Lewiston Police Cpl. Jeffrey Parshall snapped shut his metal clipboard and called out to his supervisor: “I found her on the ground and she’s extremely intoxicated.”

The 17-year-old girl stood in the glare of the headlights, her fists shoved deep in the pockets of a red-sleeved varsity jacket.

“I don’t have any ID on me,” she told the group of men gathered around her. “I’m sorry,” she said, slurring her Rs.

The men wore blue jeans and Navy hooded windbreakers with “Liquor Enforcement Team” emblazoned in yellow on their backs. Silver badges dangled from neck chains.

Turning to the girl, Parshall asked, “Why did you run and try to hide?”

“Because I’m underage. I’ve had two beers,” she said. “I’m not gonna lie about it.”

Police had chased her behind a truck, where she tried to duck out of sight, a bottle of Bud Light in the dirt near her feet. The bottle, now evidence, stood on the hood of one unmarked police car.

Parshall and other officers discussed the paperwork involved before writing the girl a civil summons for illegal possession of alcohol by a minor.

Across the road, Lewiston Police Officer Robert Ullrich, the team leader, was writing up a 17-year-old boy from the same loud party that had prompted the police call.

The roof lights of another unmarked cruiser shone on a can of Budweiser. Ullrich would later give the boy a ride home, putting the beer on his dashboard for safekeeping, until he dumped it back at the station.

The girl would ride in the back seat of an unmarked State Police cruiser to the Androscoggin County Jail. There, she would be processed, then driven to a juvenile jail in South Portland. Police had a warrant for her arrest on a prior theft charge.

Out of business

The arrest of minors for illegal drinking is all too common in Maine. But Lewiston officers enforcing the state’s liquor laws in Turner and surrounding communities – on their days off – is a recent development.

For nearly two years, local, county and state police have sought to fill a void left by the elimination of 16 state liquor enforcement officers in a budget-cutting move. Eleven workers were left in the office to handle paperwork.

Many towns have taken advantage of federal grant money available for targeting underage drinkers, using the money to pay their police officers overtime to work weekends just on liquor enforcement. The state also has offered liquor law training to local and county officers.

But other communities are doing nothing extra or are stretching already limited resources thinner to try to handle both existing duties and liquor enforcement.

None of the officials interviewed say their efforts have been able to make up for the loss. More alcohol-related violations and crimes are going unnoticed and unpunished, they say, noting that anecdotal evidence also indicates blood-alcohol levels among drivers appear to be increasing.

The Turner incident involved three state troopers who are routinely assigned to patrol half of the towns in Androscoggin County. They were backed up by Ullrich’s team of seven overtime-duty Lewiston officers.

In all, they issued five summonses, three for juvenile drinking, one for minor drinking and one for an adult furnishing alcohol to minors – the kinds of charges state liquor enforcement agents used to focus on routinely.

When they still had their jobs, those agents targeted not only underage drinking, after-hours drinking and over-serving, but sales to minors at stores and bars. They also knew the liquor laws cold, which meant they could cover more ground in a single night than mainstream law enforcement.

Many local law enforcement authorities were openly critical of the plan to scrap state liquor enforcement when it was first proposed, predicting they would not been able to take up the slack.

In the two years since the state laid off its squad of officers, the number of civil liquor violations now issued by the handful of agents who kept their jobs at the Augusta office has shown a significant drop, state records show.

Over a yearlong period ending June 2003, the state issued 206 liquor violations, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety. For 2004, 158 violations were recorded, down roughly one-quarter.

Gov. John Baldacci cut enforcement as part of his effort to overcome a $1.2 billion state budget shortfall when he took office in January 2003. In the process, he also shut the doors on the state’s liquor business.

Many local law enforcement authorities say the money saved by eliminating state enforcement has merely shifted the cost to the communities – another unfunded mandate.

Falling short

Portland, host to more than 180 drinking establishments, is struggling to keep pace with enforcement since the loss of state liquor officers, further straining that police department’s ability to cover local weekend patrols, said Police Chief Michael Chitwood.

Two officers who otherwise would be cruising neighborhoods are now assigned full-time to carry out the duties previously handled by the state, he said. Because the state didn’t pass along cost savings to local police, there are now fewer resources dedicated to both routine crime as well as liquor violations.

In addition, although the state turned over responsibility to towns and cities to enforce the liquor laws, it retained the role as sole authority to fine and shut down bars that violate those laws.

“It really has left a void,” Chitwood said. “It’s a big, significant issue and once again the state has abdicated its role.”

Police in other cities and counties echo his frustration.

“I thought it was an extremely bad move on the state’s part,” said Oxford County Sheriff Lloyd Herrick. And he said so at the time.

Now, he is not surprised to see that his deputies don’t have the time to patrol as well as fill the state’s previous liquor enforcement role.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have,” said Lewiston Deputy Police Chief Michael Bussiere.

“We don’t have the resources,” said Capt. Raymond Lafrance at the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department.

His officers still respond to complaints of underage drinking and illegal sales, but they don’t scour the woods for so-called “pit parties.” They don’t stake out stores for violations. They don’t conduct sting operations or take similar preventive measures that state officers did, Lafrance said. “I think we’re missing the boat.”

His department has only two officers on duty at a time patrolling half the towns in the county. That leaves little time for targeting liquor-related infractions, he said. For that reason, other liquor violations, such as a bar serving a visibly intoxicated patron, largely go unenforced, he said. And the bars and their customers know that, he added.

He and his deputies have noticed higher blood-alcohol levels among drivers summoned for operating under the influence since the state stopped its enforcement, Lafrance said.

“The tests are a lot higher than they should be,” he said, noting he hasn’t actually crunched the numbers to show a direct link.

‘On the right track’

Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara holds a differing view.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said.

While conceding “some difficulties” at first, calling the transition a “work in progress,” he described the move as generally “positive and successful.”

The decision to scrap the state’s 16 liquor enforcement officers saved $1.2 million the first year and more than $1.3 million the second.

“It was a difficult decision,” Cantara said. If finances hadn’t been an issue, he said it’s unlikely the state would have considered that action.

After reviewing uniform crime report statistics, Cantara said it became clear to him that the bulk of criminal liquor citations had been issued by community police, not the liquor enforcement officers. Therefore, he concluded the job could be done solely by local police. The state would realize the savings without sacrificing the overall level of enforcement, he reasoned.

“We have made it clear through letters, training and e-mails, and it has worked, to let every department in Maine know that when you hear, smell or suspect something may be afoul let us know and we will follow through.”

But Chitwood said it is not working. The lag time between discovery of a liquor violation and state action is longer than ever now that state officers are not on the scene to jump-start the paperwork process, he said.

While community officials may lack the authority to pull a bar’s liquor license, Cantara said they still have the ability to deny the initial granting of a license and they have a say about renewals. They also can suspend that business’ local entertainment permit, which, in some cases, can result in a bar’s closure.

Cantara said the state had, a year ago, changed the hours of two liquor inspection workers to coordinate with Portland’s police. He heard the arrangement had been satisfactory and was surprised to learn of Chitwood’s complaint.

“The reports I was getting last summer said it was working well,” he said.

Since June 2003, 43 local and county officers have undergone special training in state liquor laws, Cantara said.

In an effort to address one of the concerns voiced by Chitwood and the Maine Sheriffs Association, Cantara’s department initiated a bill this legislative session aimed at giving trained local officers authority to cite bars and stores for civil violations of Maine’s liquor laws, including the power to shut down a bar.

Provisions from that bill were added to another measure that was sent to the House last week with a unanimous “ought to pass” recommendation.

Unsure

On his way back to the station from his Turner bust, Lewiston Officer Ullrich spotted a car double-parked in front of a downtown nightclub.

He quizzed a woman standing near the car about its owner and why it was parked illegally. She told him the club had run out of beer. The club’s co-owner had just unloaded some beer from the car. Ullrich suspected a violation.

The co-owner came out of the club and explained that she had brought the five cases of beer from home where a distributor had made a last-minute delivery. She said she also picked up more liquor from a retail store.

Ullrich listened, jotted notes, then headed back to the station.

He said he believed she broke the law, but wasn’t sure. He planned to do some legal research, then return to the club if his hunch turned out to be correct.

Nearly a week later, the liquor purchase had checked out. But the club’s other co-owner offered a different explanation for the beer purchase. Ullrich would have to investigate further.

Denise Bemis, a state liquor officer for about six years, said experience taught her to first ask for invoices. That likely would have cleared up the confusion, she said, expressing sympathy for Ullrich.

“It’s not that the laws are difficult, but they’re complex, very specialized” she said. “You need to be doing it regularly to keep fresh.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.