Two weeks ago, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) sent a press release announcing their intention to prosecute seven North Portland stores they had recently caught selling alcohol to minors. Yet, in spite of OLCC's loud trumpeting of its successes, it seems like no one except the OLCC is cheering.

What has everyone else up in arms are the cops-and-robber tactics that the OLCC uses to catch errant establishments; that is, they are sending minors into liquor stores to buy alcohol. These sly tactics have so angered liquor store owners that the OLCC is facing a lawsuit contesting the legality of a governmental agency knowingly breaking the law. What's more, the state legislature is harshly scrutinizing the OLCC's policing tactics--an examination that ultimately could cost the agency their budget.

On March 29, members of the OLCC attended their bi-annual budget hearing in front of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee--a meeting where their entire budget is determined for the next two years. The committee chairperson, Senator Bev Clarno (R-Bend) was so disturbed by the OLCC's use of minors in sting operations--a policy she thinks focuses "too much on entrapment and not enough on prevention"--that she is doing all she can to withhold the OLCC's budget. The ramifications of such an action are unclear, but would certainly throw the OLCC into a fight for their very existence.

Clarno's disdain was triggered by stories read aloud at the recent meeting, like that of Cheryl Wilcox. Wilcox runs Fort Klamath General Store in rural southern Oregon. Last March, her daughter-in-law Audrey did her a favor by watching the store. Unfortunately, that night the OLCC targeted the business.

While Audrey was minding the store, a man (who they later found out was in charge of the sting) entered and loitered for a half-hour. Audrey became extremely worried that he was planning to rob her. At that point, an undercover minor involved in the sting entered and removed a bottle of liquor from behind the locked bars of a display case. Extremely flustered by this point, Audrey sold him the bottle without checking his ID.

She was immediately arrested, physically searched and booked overnight at the local jail. On the verge of serving a year in jail and paying a $5000 fine for "knowingly and willingly selling alcohol to a minor," Audrey had to hire an attorney. Ultimately, the fine was reduced to "failure to check ID." Even though the final outcome was a slap on the wrist, the ordeal dragged out for the better part of a year, and cost Audrey six trips to court and a total of $2000.

Sting operations don't always cause this much heartache; jail time is a rarity, but most include fines ranging from $693 to $4950, or license suspensions from four to 30 days. But many liquor store agents think sting operations should stop because they attempt to reprimand liquor store managers, rather than prevent the root of the problem. Pete Grapel, an agent out of Eugene, is currently involved in a lawsuit contesting the OLCC's use of undercover minors to catch people selling alcohol--an act which is illegal in and of itself, argues Grapel and his lawyer. The lawsuit remains in the initial discovery phases.

Even though concern is coming to a head right now, this issue is a hangover from last legislative session. Two years ago, in the last budget hearing, Rep. Clarno and Rep. Tom Butler (R-Ontario) worked on a plan that included "less entrapment techniques for catching minors, and more training for OLCC employees," said Clarno.

Even though they laid out a plan for the OLCC to follow, Butler feels as if their plan was ignored. This time, Butler claims, they're going to do their best to make sure the plan is followed before the OLCC is awarded their bi-annual budget. Ken Palke, spokesperson for the OLCC, says they plan to continue using sting operations as long as they're legal. "We've found this a very effective technique," he said.