A budget cut to the N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement agency could mean fewer officers on staff — but not necessarily fewer alcohol citations.
A $1.75 million cut to the ALE’s budget could force the agency to eliminate as many as 30 positions from its statewide staff of 110 agents this year.
ALE — the state’s primary enforcer of Alcoholic Beverage Control laws — is one of several law enforcement agencies with the authority to issue citations for alcohol violations. Officers from the agency frequent areas with a high number of bars, such as Franklin Street.
Patty McQuillan, a law enforcement communications officer with the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said the ALE received $8.6 million from the state’s general fund last year. This year, its budget is less than $7 million.
She said the agency is still assessing how it will handle the 20-percent cut but shedding positions is possible.
John Gualtieri, operations manager at La Residence restaurant, said he feels a smaller number of ALE officers could mean an increase in violations given.
“Instead of visiting 20 times a year, now they’re coming five times a year, and they’re more inclined to (write tickets and warnings),” Gualtieri said.
Jeff Lasater, the ALE agent in charge of the Raleigh district, said officers try to make visits to college campuses at the start of each school year.
One UNC student who said she was at He’s Not Here bar on Aug. 24 said she was approached by an ALE officer who removed her from the bar.
“Of course I’m gonna shy away,” she said. “He never showed a badge or identified who he was.”
The student, who wished to remain anonymous, said the officer handcuffed her when she refused to be searched.
“He started yelling at me like, ‘How did you get into the bar? Are you of age?’” she said.
“I was just like, ‘No, I’m underage. Just give me a ticket — I’ve been drinking.’”
She said she wasn’t sure whether or not the officer was legally within his bounds.
“Most of us have never been in legal trouble so we just don’t know what to do when we’re put in that situation,” she said.
“I don’t know what they’re actually allowed to do and not do.”
Dave Crescenzo, a staff attorney at UNC Student Legal Services, said ALE officers are required to show their badge if asked but are otherwise allowed to lie or use scare tactics — such as handcuffing — when confronting underage drinkers.
Crescenzo said students can always refuse to answer questions or take a Breathalyzer — unless they are behind the wheel of a car with the engine running.
“We always tell people (they) don’t have to answer questions,” Crescenzo said.
“You can always say … ‘Officer, I have no comment.’”
ALE officers respond to complaints they receive about establishments regarding criminal activity, drug deals or breaching ABC laws, said Catherine Johnson, the sole ALE agent assigned to Orange County.
“Basically what I do throughout the week is go to some places like Chapel Hill and Hillsborough … and find problem establishments in our area and focus on those,” she said.
Johnson said ALE offers a training program to businesses with ABC permits that educates servers on regulations.
Mike Mineer, a Chapel Hill police officer, said part of the training involves teaching servers how to identify underage customers.
“There’s (an) age-specific portion of training as far as looking at people and determining whether you believe they’re underage or not and telltale signs saying someone may be fraudulent,” he said.
Jeremy Ferry, general manager at Carolina Coffee Shop, said fake IDs can be hard to spot.
“I think part of the difficulty is there are a lot of fake IDs in Chapel Hill,” he said.
“There’s a lot of students here that are in the same age group, so you get a lot of people that look alike. So that’s a gray area for us.”
Gualtieri said ALE officers have come to La Residence during regular business as well as during weddings and private parties, though he said the bar hasn’t received a violation in a few years.
“Since we sell alcohol and they’re the alcohol police, they can do whatever they want,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen people get taken out of here crying before.”
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