I.D., Please 

A new carding law for beer sales attempts to cut back on underage drinking, but is the beer industry just covering its butt?

Local developer Henry Turley owns Miss Cordelia's Neighborhood Grocery in Harbor Town and thus holds the market's beer license. But that didn't stop a cashier from requesting his driver's license the last time he tried to purchase his favorite brew.

"A small indignity for a man in his 67th year, but the day was hot and my favorite Sam Smith's was cold," Turley says.

Others, like 50-year-old Patrick Hunt, get more than annoyed when carded for beer sales.

"I've been carded every time I've bought beer lately," says Hunt, whose graying hair is proof that he's of legal drinking age. "It makes me think the government is a bunch of imbeciles."

As of July 1st, all sellers in the state are required to I.D. everyone buying beer regardless of how old they appear. It's part of the Responsible Vendors Act, an attempt by the state legislature to curb underage drinking. The mandatory identification provision is the first such law in the country.

"Even if a blue-haired old lady comes in to buy beer, they'll have to card her," says Bond Tubbs of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC), the agency charged with punishing vendors for violating the new law.

Sam Hujeir, owner of Sam's Market on Highland, says some older customers get angry when asked for an I.D.

"This may be a good idea for the store owners, so we're safe from selling to minors, but the cashiers don't like it. They get cussed out a lot," Hujeir says.

Interestingly, the law only applies to beer sales. Wine and liquor stores and restaurants are exempt. That may have something to do with the industries that pushed to get the bill passed. The Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, and the state Retail Association (all special-interest groups representing the beer, convenience-store, and retail industries) paved the way for the Responsible Vendors Act.

"If they're going to have this as a law, they need to make it apply to everyone, not just beer sales," says Al Sahan, owner of Raffe's International Beer Market on Poplar.

But there's more to this new law than simply requiring everyone to prove their age. The law also creates a new Responsible Vendor Program, in which retailers can choose to pay for a training class to gain certification through the state ABC. The classes teach clerks methods for recognizing and dealing with underage customers.

After taking the optional class, a certified vendor caught selling to a minor will receive a lesser penalty than those who have not taken the class.

For example, nonparticipating retailers can face suspension, revocation, or a fine of up $2,500 for each violation. Certified retailers face a $1,000 fine, but if the business is caught with two underage violations in a 12-month period, it can lose its certification.

Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy says the bill takes power away from local beer boards to fine as they see fit. Instead, the state ABC handles punishment for certified vendors now. Critics of the law believe it actually benefits the beer industry by allowing them to face smaller fines and fewer chances of license suspension.

"If we suspend someone's beer permit, it affects the wholesaler that sells the beer," Goldsworthy says. "This basically gives vendors permission to pass from local authority on the first violation."

Representative Brian Kelsey, who voted against the bill, agrees: "This was a ruse by beer sellers to make it seem like they're cracking down when they're actually just removing liability from themselves."

Congressman Steve Cohen also voted against the bill in 2006 when he was still a state senator. He calls the law "the most craven capitulation to illogical special interests I've ever seen." Besides his opposition to lowering fines to certain retailers, he says the mandatory I.D. provision is "stupid."

"My mother is 92, and if she doesn't have an I.D. with her, she can't buy beer. That's ludicrous! It's not like she's buying heroin," Cohen says.

Representative John DeBerry of Memphis used to chair the local beer board. He voted for the bill because he says he's seen too many photos of mangled teenage bodies involved in drunk-driving accidents.

"Any person over 25 years of age ought to have a legitimate I.D. to do business with anyway," DeBerry says. "Why would a responsible adult not have an I.D.?"

Customers like 51-year-old Debbie Jacobs agree. She says she always carries her identification.

"I get carded all the time. It doesn't bother me," Jacobs says. "It tells me they're watching out for the kids who don't need to be buying beer."

The carding provision will expire in one year, and legislators will evaluate whether or not it's making a difference.

Ronnie Ray, owner of the Keg in Millington, says he doesn't see how carding people with gray hair and wrinkles will prevent underage drinking.

"These people who make the laws should have bigger fish to fry," Ray says. "People are killing people out in the streets. That's a much bigger problem the state legislators should be dealing with."

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