Winston Mardis says the liquor control commission’s Serving Alcohol to Minors program was designed to stop underage drinking. The city sends minors into bars, hoping to bust anyone who will serve them. In 1993, the program’s first year, 56 percent of all liquor licensees tested were caught selling to minors. Last year, that figure was down to 10 percent. In 1996, bar owners challenged SAM in state court, charging entrapment. The city won.

“So what does that tell you?” Mardis says. “All Mayor Daley wants licensees to do is ask for an ID if they’re in doubt of the person’s age.”

Bar owner Nick Novich, president of the Chicago Area Social and Entertainment Organization, says that just because SAM is legal doesn’t mean it’s fair. Neither of his two bars, Nick’s and the Note, has ever been nailed in a SAM sting, but plenty of respectable CASEO members haven’t been so lucky. “The assumption is that the owner is overcome by greed and can’t help himself to serve an underage person,” he says. “Look, bars are busy places. Eventually it’s going to happen. If you get caught once in 500 tries, it’s the same penalty as if they sent someone in three times and you got caught twice.”

The liquor control commission runs SAM stings with the Chicago Police Department using part-time employees who are under 21. Sometimes they’re dressed in business suits or street clothes; other times they dress like construction workers. The one thing they have in common is that they are all younger than they look. They order a drink, and if they get served police immediately issue a ticket. The bar owner then must pay $500, close for three days, or appeal the fine. If the owner decides to appeal, the charge may get thrown out, or things might get worse–the fine or suspension could go up.

Before CAPS, the city’s community policing program, tickets would first go to the minors who’d bought the alcohol, says Michael Boyce, an attorney for the liquor control commission. Then the city would hope they’d show up in court to testify against the liquor licensee–even though they were being prosecuted themselves. By using underage police department employees, Boyce says, the city has a sure thing.

Novich says the city’s numbers are misleading. While taverns have gotten wise to the nature of sting operations, he says, kids still pass phony IDs. “There’s no other crime where law enforcement embraces the criminal to prosecute someone else,” he says. “If they want a changed behavior, they’re going to have to hold kids accountable. As long as they keep doing what they’re doing, kids will continue to break the law.”

Meanwhile, bars live in fear of SAM stings. “It’s almost embarrassing,” says one tavern owner. “We card people who are obviously 40-45 years old. I used to have someone at the door the last couple of hours on the weekends. Now there’s someone there the minute the night shift starts. Customers get mad at me. They tell me, ‘Well, I was here last week,’ but we can’t take any chances. We can’t afford the lawyers and can’t afford to close.”

Bar owners stung by SAM realize they screwed up, but most think the program’s tactics are extreme. Here are a few of their stories.

9 “The city sent a guy, he looked 24 years old. My bartender, she didn’t ask him for ID because she thought he looked old enough. There were two guys staying close to the door. They saw everything. That was three years ago. They tried to close my place for 30 days. I asked my lawyer to help me, and I’m still waiting for the decision on the appeal. I’ve got a restaurant connected to the bar. If they close me down for a month, I’m gonna lose the business.”

9 “We open at three o’clock, and we have a doorman starting at four, which is five hours ahead of anyone else in the world. We got hit in the hour from three to four. They’re trying to pick the most vulnerable time because they know the first customers at a bar are always especially welcome. Halsted Street is not exactly hopping with people during the daytime who are looking for a beer. Why not check me on a Saturday night when I’ve got 1,000 people running through here? That’s when the real underage people want to drink.”

9 “It happened in the spring. Around one o’clock in the afternoon, nobody around. This guy came in and went to use the phone. There were two other people in the bar. Then a woman came in. I definitely should have carded her. I kick myself in the ass every day for not doing it. But I poured the beer and served her. The guy hung up the phone, immediately came over, and said, ‘Do you realize you just served an 18-year-old?’ Then two other cops came in and took my picture. My face was beet red for three hours afterward. It won’t happen again. Not to me.”

9 “Ours was pretty basic. They sent in a girl, dressed her up to look 35. She ordered a Miller Lite, paid for it, and a cop walked in. I’m sure they’ve tried other times, but I guess we beat them. It’s a shakedown, just like in the 70s, only now they give you a warning to cover their ass. This program is insulting, it’s dumb, and it’s offensive. We’re an old bar. We have nothing but jazz on the jukebox. There’s nothing that kids care about. We have no intention of catering to kids.”

9 “The woman who ordered the drink looked like she was at least 35 or 40. I have a picture of her. She looked older than me. We’re not going to ask anybody who looks more than 25 years old their age. I have a sign up saying ‘If you’re under 25, we don’t serve you.’ I don’t have a lot of those young people. I serve a lot of retired people. Mardis told me I could go to court instead of paying the fine. I saw that girl in court, and she had on ripped jeans, a blue tank top, sneakers. She was a kid. I felt like I could beat this, because looking at the picture of this lady, she looked like one of my regular customers, an older person. We got to court, everybody testified. They said they’d notify me of the verdict by mail. They ended up fining me $750. I spent a lot more money than if I’d closed for three days. But to this day, I still feel they set me up.”

9 “We had just opened up, and two people entered. It was a black fellow, nicely dressed. With him walked a Hispanic fellow, looking young, but not looking too young. My husband was behind the bar. The Hispanic fellow sat in the front, and the black fellow said, ‘What kind of beers do you have?’ Blah, blah, blah. He said he wanted to look at all the taps behind the bar, and said to my husband, “Help the other guy.” The Hispanic guy ordered a Genuine Draft. My husband went to help out the guy looking at the taps, and he just put the beer down. The cops came in right away. It caught us totally off guard, and believe me, we card everybody. In reality, if we hadn’t been deliberately thrown off, this would have never happened. But what can you do? It’s just a very, very sneaky system.”

–Neal Pollack