$1 penalty in alcohol server case is under fire from group
WILLMAR -- A 27-year-old Willmar woman was found guilty last week of a gross misdemeanor for serving alcohol to an underage person during alcohol compliance checks conducted last October by the Willmar Police Department.
It's the $1 fine -- which reduces the conviction to a petty misdemeanor -- handed down by District Judge Michael J. Thompson after the verdict that is disappointing to the Kandiyohi County Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition and other local officials.
"As a coalition, we are definitely disappointed," said Laura Lindeman, the drug-free grant coordinator for Kandiyohi County Public Health. "We believe (Judge Thompson) is sending the wrong message to the community and to the providers of alcohol to underage drinkers."
Shannon Elizabeth Moore was found guilty of the gross misdemeanor charge by a six-person jury in Kandiyohi County District Court. She was one of several individuals charged for providing alcohol to a minor after Oct. 30, when the Willmar Police Department conducted compliance checks at 20 local establishments.
Moore was a server at The Oaks at Eagle Creek who sold two beers to the 19-year-old woman working with the police during the checks.
Police Chief Jim Kulset says the $1 fine is a specific shot at his department by the judge.
"The $1 fine is a shot at another branch of government. Judges have the right to sentence as they wish, but I have an issue with activist judges with personal biases," Kulset said, who said he spoke with Thompson after the sentence was handed down. "He doesn't like the law and compliance checks."
Thompson declined to comment on the case, citing the state Code of Judicial Conduct prohibiting judges from commenting on cases pending before any court. The case is considered pending because the sentence could be appealed by the County Attorney's Office.
Thompson made a transcript of the May 4 sentencing hearing available in Moore's court file.
"I don't believe this was an intentional offense. The statute does not make it a strictly intentional offense, I don't believe Ms. Moore set out that night to sell any alcohol to minors," he said during the sentencing, according to the transcript. "I believe the furnishing statute is more designed for people who intentionally provide liquor to minors."
The judge continued, stating that he had a problem with the compliance check and that the underage person working with the police looked and behaved well over 21 years old.
Later in the sentencing hearing, the judge said, in his opinion, that the case was "not worthy of a gross misdemeanor offense. It's not worthy of a misdemeanor offense." He then sentenced Moore to pay $1 and $90 in court fees and surcharges, which he couldn't waive.
Typically, the Police Department twice per year conducts compliance checks, during which an underage person enters local establishments and attempts to purchase alcohol. City ordinance requires "regular" compliance checks of establishments, Kulset said. During the October checks, the young woman attempted to buy alcohol at 20 establishments and was refused at 13 and allowed to buy at seven establishments.
The person working with the police signs an agreement before conducting the checks, Kulset said. The rules are very specific, the person is told to tell their real age when asked and to produce their identification if asked by the servers.
The procedures used during compliance checks by both the Police Department and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office are above reproach, according to County Attorney Boyd Beccue. "They are very careful and very fair," he said.
The checks are just that, he said, checks, not "stings" against businesses that sell alcohol. "It's a simple check to see if they are playing by the rules."
Failing a compliance check is a gross misdemeanor charge, according to state law, Beccue said. "The Legislature has spoken on it," he said, adding that checks are allowed because officials are trying to save the lives of young people.
"I live in fear of the next young, drunk-driving death," he said. "They are the worst type of tragedy."