Police decoys catch people buying booze for minors in San Mateo County

If a youth hanging out in front of a convenience store asks you to buy her alcohol, do not do it. That innocent-looking teen could be a police decoy, and providing her with booze could earn you a criminal record along with a $1,000 fine or many hours of community service.

The San Francisco Examiner recently rode along with local law enforcement to see how they use decoys to nab adults who provide minors with alcohol. Funded by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the ongoing operation is a joint effort between the Pacifica, Daly City and South San Francisco police departments.

Youth decoys are often involved in Police Explorer programs, which prepare students for law enforcement careers by giving them field experience working with police. But for some decoys, the operation, dubbed Shoulder Tap, is not just about future career prospects.

Kristina, 19, who declined to provide her last name, said she feels personally invested in curbing underage alcohol consumption because of its sometimes tragic effect on local teens. She cited a 2005 drunken driving accident in Pacifica in which two youths died, prompting the city to pass an ordinance imposing stiff fines on adults who allow teens to drink in their homes.

Janelle, 18, who also declined to give her last name, said a member of her family is a recovering alcoholic, and she is disturbed by the stories she hears about alcohol abuse among her peers.

During the recent ridealong, South City Lt. Keith Wall and Officer Robby Chon wore plain clothes and watched from an unmarked sedan as Janelle acted as a decoy. While Wall and Chon maintained a line of sight on the young woman, Cpl. Anthony Pinell, who was in uniform, kept his black-and-white police car out of sight until it was time to bust suspects.

And bust suspects they did.

As the team spent the day working convenience stores in the three cities, adults were frequently willing to buy alcohol for a minor.

Pacifica Sgt. Duane Wachtelborn, who oversaw the operation, said that of the 52 people contacted, 12 bought alcohol for a decoy. Wachtelborn noted that the youngest decoy, who is 15, nabbed the most illegal buys.

The program comes with rules dictated by ABC that are designed to prevent activity a court might view as entrapment. The rules require that decoys are under 20 years of age and must not wear clothes or makeup (or facial hair, in the case of male decoys) designed to make them look older than they are. Decoys are also required to tell a potential buyer how old they are before any alcohol changes hands.

Defending the program, Wachtelborn said it was necessary to deter adults from enabling underage drinking, which puts minors at risk for drunken driving, addiction, poor health, sexual assault and even death.

“I personally have been involved in underage drinking cases that have resulted in serious and fatal traffic collisions,” Wachtelborn said. “Another real danger is that of intoxicated teens being taken advantage of by their peers or adults.”

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