Keeping the bar open

Getting a liquor license in Pennsylvania is tough; keeping it is even tougher.

Frank C. Sluzis

Bar and restaurant owners can pour themselves all kinds of trouble that can cost them their livelihoods - and their liquor licenses. The privilege of holding a liquor license can be taken away if licensees fail to live up to their responsibilities, as defined by the Liquor Control Board, the State Police, and state liquor law.

Based upon a review of recent Administrative Law Judge adjudications, here are the top three most common violations, which can place your license in jeopardy, and strategies to avoid them to keep the service flowing.

1. Serving minors is a major risk

Underage sales consistently rank at or near the top of State Police enforcement actions across Pennsylvania. Selling beer, wine or hard liquor to someone under the age of 21 remains the most prevalent way to get slapped with a Liquor Control Enforcement (LCE) violation.

Using "compliance checks," a PLCE officer will send a minor into a licensed establishment to purchase alcoholic beverages. Most often, the minor attempts to illegally purchase a six-pack of beer for take-out.

These trained teens, certified by the PLCE, often show up at the busiest times when they are least likely to be asked for identification.

Typically, the minor will confidently make a beeline for the six-pack cooler. Meanwhile, the PLCE officer is already positioned inside for a full view.

All it takes is a less-than-vigilant bartender to fall into the trap, and the minor exits the premises with the beer. Once outside, another agent takes immediate possession of the alcohol, then returns to show the manager the beer and write up the violation.

Bar employees often do ask for identification, but they simply don't bother to examine the date of birth on the driver's license. Many bars are specifically singled out for beer coolers that allow patrons to help themselves.

Employees must examine every ID, taking notice of the date of birth and then doing the math. In Pennsylvania, the licenses of minors are easy to spot. They are arranged vertically, while all other licenses are arranged horizontally.

But the best solution is to invest in an electronic ID scanner that instantly authenticates a patron's ID, confirming their legal age at the mere swipe of a magnetic strip through the card reader. In short, sidestepping human error, it's foolproof as long as it is used before every sale.

2. Conditional doesn't mean optional

The next most common infraction can be categorized as the failure to adhere to the conditions of a Conditional Licensing Agreement, or CLA, which is generated by the PLCB Bureau of Licensing during the licensing renewal process. Prior to the license expiration every two years, a licensee must file a renewal application with this bureau. Generally, licensees are offered a CLA when their renewal application receives objections by bureau.

Often, the Bureau will object to the license renewal by citing the establishment's adjudicated citation history and/or any related police activity. Thus, the Bureau makes the license renewal subject to a Conditional Licensing Agreement, or CLA. The terms of these CLAs are frequently quite restrictive, such as calling for the scanning of all patrons' IDs, regardless of age, curtailed hours, and beefed-up security.

The terms of the approved CLA are then relayed to the PLCE for enforcement and follow-up. If checks find that a licensee isn't living up to the CLA agreement, citations will be issued, putting an already conditional license at further risk.

3. Not ramping things up

The liquor code includes requirements aimed at improving management and ensuring better liquor law compliance. This is why PLCB-approved managers must complete training in what is known as RAMP, or the Responsible Alcohol Management Program.

RAMP is offered through the PLCB Education Bureau. Typically, the agency affords newly designated managers up to 180 days to complete the program and become fully certified.

If your establishment changes managers, you must first submit a request for this change to the PLCB. Once the agency approves your new manager, he or she must complete RAMP training and certification within 180 days.

The PLCE is promptly notified every time a new manager is hired, triggering an enforcement follow-up to check on RAMP compliance.

These responsibilities are a matter of record and regulation. All licensees should know and follow them, ensuring that your establishment won't fall victim to PLCE actions.

The time to protect your Pennsylvania liquor license begins the very moment you receive one.


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