California Liquor Law - What is a Decoy Operation?

The attorneys of Theta Law Firm are familiar with California's laws on alcoholic beverage control and can help you obtain or defend your liquor license in the event of a sale to a minor or other incident relating to your license.

Local law enforcement agencies and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (often working together) in California (the "California ABC") frequently run "decoy operations," which often involve sending minors into licensed premises to purchase an alcoholic beverage. The minors are often police cadets or just volunteers. They come into the licensed premises wearing plain clothing and are often accompanied in the store by undercover law enforcement personnel and/or an ABC investigator. Once the sale is completed, the minor will then be brought back into the store to identify the alleged seller. At that point, the disciplinary process begins.

Fear not, though; not all hope is lost for licensees. Licensees have some protections under applicable laws, regulations, and rules. Specifically, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has adopted Rule 141, which places restrictions on decoy operations. If Rule 141 is violated, it is possible that the licensee may have a complete defense to the Department's administrative action.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control's Rule 141 (Cal. Code Regs. tit. 4, § 141) provides:

    § 141. Minor Decoy Requirements.

    (a) A law enforcement agency may only use a person under the age of 21 years to attempt to purchase alcoholic beverages to apprehend licensees, or employees or agents of licensees who sell alcoholic beverages to minors (persons under the age of 21) and to reduce sales of alcoholic beverages to minors in a fashion that promotes fairness.

    (b) The following minimum standards shall apply to actions filed pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 25658 in which it is alleged that a minor decoy has purchased an alcoholic beverage:

      (1) At the time of the operation, the decoy shall be less than 20 years of age;

      (2) The decoy shall display the appearance which could generally be expected of a person under 21 years of age, under the actual circumstances presented to the seller of alcoholic beverages at the time of the alleged offense;

      (3) A decoy shall either carry his or her own identification showing the decoy's correct date of birth or shall carry no identification; a decoy who carries identification shall present it upon request to any seller of alcoholic beverages;

      (4) A decoy shall answer truthfully any questions about his or her age;

      (5) Following any completed sale, but not later than the time a citation, if any, is issued, the peace officer directing the decoy shall make a reasonable attempt to enter the licensed premises and have the minor decoy who purchased alcoholic beverages make a face to face identification of the alleged seller of the alcoholic beverages.
    (c) Failure to comply with this rule shall be a defense to any action brought pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 25658.

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