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Here's what you need to know about Alcohol Law Enforcement's authority in North Carolina

The Peace and Justice Plaza on E Franklin St, pictured on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

Recent events in Chapel Hill, including a forceful student arrest on Franklin Street, have left some residents wondering about Alcohol Law Enforcement's purpose, authority and presence in the state and Town.

ALE enforces the state’s alcoholic beverage control, lottery and tobacco laws. Its mission, according to its website, is to “reduce crime and enhance public safety."

A timeline of ALE

In 1909, North Carolina became the first southern state to ban alcoholic sales and manufacturing. 

The state's General Assembly created the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission in 1937 and then added statewide ABC enforcement in 1949. This was in an attempt to regulate alcohol law enforcement, as enforcement varied across the state. The Commission currently oversees over 18,000 retail outlets for alcohol sales across the state.

The original ABC enforcement had little power, and inspectors who tracked illegal liquor vendors wore plain clothes.

This changed in 1964, when inspectors were transformed into uniformed ABC officers. These officers had the authority to make full arrests for alcohol-related crimes.

During this period, business owners complained that the presence of officers in uniform negatively impacted their businesses, so officers again began wearing plain clothes somewhere from 1966 to 1967.

The N.C. General Assembly eventually created the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety — now the Department of Public Safety — in 1977, and the ABC enforcement body was named the Alcohol Law Enforcement Division.

ALE’s new division came with a new power – it received primary enforcement jurisdiction for alcohol and drug-related laws.

North Carolina General Statute 18B-500 outlines the scope of the agency’s authority, describing alcohol law enforcement agents as state officers who have jurisdiction throughout the state.

The ALE division has 108 special agents dispersed across eight districts throughout the state. Orange County is in District IV, along with much of north-central North Carolina.

ALE’s Public Information Officer Erin Bean said in an email that agents are assigned to a specific district based on the agency’s needs.

According to an Aug. 27 press release, a recent statewide ALE operation resulted in 189 arrests and 449 charges this year, 261 of which were alcohol-related and 80 were drug-related. Chapel Hill was one of the areas of focus. 

“The mission of the Alcohol Law Enforcement Division is to reduce crime and enhance public safety throughout the State of North Carolina," Bean said in an email statement. "This mission is accomplished through the proactive, fair and consistent enforcement of the state laws related to alcoholic beverage control, gambling, tobacco, controlled substances, and nuisance abatement, as well as other criminal and regulatory matters in the interest of health and public safety."

Another goal of ALE is to establish relationships with local law enforcement in order “to provide solutions to community-based problems."

In 2016 the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association funded a training program alongside the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to increase local law enforcement agencies’ understanding of the scope of their authority in regard to ALE.

While there were programs tailored for eight states individually, the NLLEA also provided a presentation and encouraged other state divisions to modify the presentation to be fitting for their region. 

A systematic review by the NLLEA referenced three studies that found an association between “modest decreases” in underage drinking and ALE, but the decrease was only directly attributed to enhanced law enforcement in one study.

Student response

UNC student Cecilia Barcenas said that she thinks ALE may be able to stop some negative things, but will likely create more resistance and discomfort among students.

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Barcenas said ALE could learn more about Chapel Hill by working with the Chapel Hill Police Department. She added that it’s very important to learn how to create a safe environment.

“But there’s certain ways you can do it,” Barcenas said. “Not the way that they’ve been approaching it recently.”

Bean said ALE special agents complete annual in-service training through the North Carolina Justice Academy alongside quarterly training. She also noted that agents take part in de-escalation training. The academy offers courses including a class on preempting misconduct. 

Brooke Morgan, a sophomore at UNC, said the increased police presence on Franklin Street can be uncomfortable for students, especially in light of the recent arrest of the UNC student by ALE agents.

“You can’t do what you normally would want to do,” Morgan said. “Not necessarily anything illegal, but you just feel a little bit more tense that you’re being watched.”

The CHPD declined to comment on its relationship with ALE, but it released a statement soon after the incident on Franklin Street last month noting that it is not affiliated with ALE.


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