COLUMBIA — More than 100 cases in which Columbia police used undercover minors to bust business that weren’t properly checking IDs have been or could be dismissed because authorities violated state regulations.
The Columbia Police Department’s compliance check program, in which undercover 18- or 19-year old volunteers attempt to purchase alcohol at local businesses, began in May 2008 and ran sting operations until mid-April.
Officers cited anyone caught selling to a minor. The fine for selling alcohol to a minor can range from $75 to $1,000.
According to the minutes of the May 13 Substance Abuse Advisory Commission meeting, Columbia Police Officer Tim Thomason said since the program began, 148 establishments failed the compliance checks and 182 passed. Every establishment with a liquor license was checked at least once.
The program is funded in part by grants from the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which established a series of guidelines for using minors in the sting operations.
In February, the city prosecutor’s office received the tickets and reports from all the cases involved with the program and noticed that only one of the reports indicated that one of the minors had been wearing an audio recording device during the operation.
Minors used in the checks are required to wear audio or video recording devices, according to the regulations established by the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.
City prosecutor Rose Wibbenmeyer said upon further investigation her office found that the audiotapes gathered in the checks were not getting submitted as evidence and were not mentioned in the police reports.
The files were found compiled on a single disk in Thomason’s desk. After looking into the other cases further, it was discovered that authorities had not followed all of the state’s required procedures in more than 100 of the cases.
“As we dug into it, there were many things on the checklist that he had said he had done, but (they) hadn’t been done,” Wibbenmeyer said.
Wibbenmeyer said this information had gotten out among defense attorneys in the city, and that many had begun to file motions to dismiss the cases. Since then, 40 of the cases have been dismissed and several guilty pleas have been reversed.
Wibbenmeyer said that in one of the checks, a minor with a previous alcohol-related offense was used, which also violates state regulations. In another check, she said, one of the minors was heard on an audio file saying they used false identification in the course of the sting.
Columbia Police Sgt. Lloyd Simons of the Community Services Unit said the department had not intentionally withheld the audio files from evidence.
“In our minds they were audio files for the grant,” he said.
After the department learned about the various issues involving the compliance check program, it contacted the Missouri Department of Public Safety to advise it of the situation. In March, the department received an $11,000 grant from the department to fund the program.
Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said the department would meet with Columbia police about the issue, but a date had not been set.
He said it was too early at this point to discuss possible consequences for the Columbia Police Department.
Simons said the program would be running again after “several oversights” regarding the program had been acknowledged, and said the program would be taken over by other officers.
“There’s times when officers get a little sloppy,” Simons said.
Columbia attorney Bogdan Susan said he had at least six clients whose compliance check cases were dismissed.
“If these things are done correctly, they’re very hard to defend,” Susan said.
Wibbenmeyer said, despite the infractions in the compliance checks, the program was effective because it still taught violators a lesson.
“They learned that it is important and that they shouldn’t be selling intoxicants to minors,” she said.
Columbia attorney Dan Viets said the program is “ineffective” and “seems like entrapment.” He said he is “skeptical” that the program reduces the problem of underage drinking.
“The truth is that young people will get all the alcohol they want,” Viets said.