WMBF News Investigates: Hardly legal

By Meghan Miller - bio | email

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Nearly 1,900 businesses are scattered across the Grand Strand who are licensed to sell alcohol, but how many can get away with slipping a drink or two to someone under the legal drinking age?

The South Carolina Alcohol Enforcement Team says it's more than you think and a number of teenagers we spoke with say drinking underage isn't exactly an uphill battle, either.

"I hear a lot of kids go out drinking," said one teen.  "That's all they usually do - is go drink."

WMBF News teamed up with the SCAET and local police to see if what local teens say is true:  How easy is it to drink underage in Horry County?

Each month, local police team up with the AET to put local businesses to the ultimate test - to see if they will sell beer or liquor to a minor.

There are no loopholes in what police call "undercover compliance checks."  A teenager who volunteers to take part in the undercover compliance checks simply walks into a business, grabs a 6-pack of beer or orders a drink and tries to get served using their real ID.

It didn't take long for us to find a bartender who didn't hesitate to sell to not one of the undercover teenagers, but his 18-year-old friend as well.

"I said can I just go ahead and get a shot of 99 Bananas, and she just gave it to me," said Sean, a 19-year-old undercover teen.

While Sean was served up a shot, his friend Trent was served a Bud Light, as well.

All it took was one phone call by Sean's friend before officers with the Loris Police Department made their way into the bar and slapped the bartender with a different tip than she expected:  Don't sell to minors.

Her consequences for selling to Sean and his friend would be painful to her pocket - two tickets for illegally selling liquor and beer to a minor.

It was a surprise for her to find Sean and his friend were underage. For one Loris Police Officer, he had a feeling Monkey Saloon would break the law.  He says it's a popular spot for teens and it's one his department will now be keeping an eye on.

That night only resulted in one of nine businesses in Loris selling to the two minors, and Chief Joseph Vaught with the Loris Police Department says that's a win in his book.

But down the road in Myrtle Beach, police have a completely different problem on their hands.  The beach, bars, clubs and raging nightlife only adds fuel to the underage drinking problem Myrtle Beach police have to fight on a daily basis.

During a March 19 compliance check, 50 percent of stores sold to an undercover minor assisting the Myrtle Beach Police Department.

The numbers don't get any better from there.  On April 10, four of eight businesses sold yet again to a minor, and then came the biggest surprise of all - the largest underage drinking bust in Myrtle Beach history on June 3.

"It happened," said Mike Mullinix, owner of the Cash Grocery on 6th Avenue North.  "We just got busy and it just slipped through."

Les Haga with the SCAET says Mike's excuse is one of the most common reasons why businesses say they accidentally sell alcohol to minors. On June 3, seven of nine businesses involved in the latest alcohol compliance check by the Myrtle Beach Police Department failed with flying colors.

"We, we messed up," Mullinix confessed.

For messing up, the Cash Grocery wasn't only ticketed for selling alcohol to minors, but had to make up for the damage by attending an alcohol class.  Mullinix says this is the first black mark on his store's record in 46 years.

"It will not happen again and I will guarantee that," he added.

But a back alley in Loris proved there is always two sides to every story.  The Loris Police Department introduced WMBF News to what they call "shoulder tapping," or adults illegally buying alcohol for minors.

"If we even have one teenager buying alcohol, we feel it's a problem," said Chief Joseph Vaught with the Loris Police Department.

When Sean and his friend couldn't get served at a convenience store, bar or grocery store, they turned to those walking around the parking lot for a little help with getting a 6-pack.  Surprisingly enough, it was much easier to do.

"I was not totally surprised at that," noted Vaught.  "It seems to be the most prevalent way teens do get a hold of alcohol."

The two teenagers and police scanned the streets of Loris to see who exactly could help them get drunk.  In an hour and a half, three people volunteered to buy the teens beer and one was even arrested after police found he was in possession of marijuana.

There is a way, however, to keep these situations from happening to your teen.  Sean and his friend were lucky.  There was nothing illegal with the teens buying alcohol because they were helping police find out who was willing to hand over the booze.

If your teen is caught under the influence of alcohol by police, they'll land themselves a one-way ticket to the J. Reuben Long Detention Center like 20-year-old Dan Evans.

Evans was arrested for being under the influence of alcohol after police decided to end a night full of fun and drinks at the N Zone across from Coastal Carolina University.  It's a place even University President David DeCenzo has targeted to shut down with the help of local authorities.

"They're not checking valid ID's," Haga claimed.  "They may say they are. They may tell their boss they are.  They may tell their manager they are.  People at the door are not checking their ID's."

Even if teens are slipping through the doors of local bars and clubs without a valid ID, Haga says parents can avoid picking up their children from jail with one piece of advice.

"I think the problem we have [is] a lot of parents who say 'Well, that's what I did.  It's a rite of passage."  If that's your mindset, that's fine," he said.  "But we kill 5,000 kids a year with alcohol."

Those 5,000 kids killed, Haga says, is just a small fraction of the nearly 12.5 million minors who consume alcohol each year.

Local police vow to do their best to keep that number as low as possible across the Grand Strand, but now, it may be without the help of the SCAET.

Haga tells WMBF News the Alcohol Enforcement Team is funded by a state legislative grant.  The $400,000 grant, he says, has not been renewed for the upcoming year.

What does that mean for undercover drinking busts in Horry County?  It's now the sole responsibility of local police.

Right now, the Alcohol Enforcement Team no longer exists, but could get a second breath of life pending the passing of two grants that are currently awaiting approval.