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Fla. Police Use Teen in Alcohol Stings

By Margarita Martin-Hidalgo, The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

LAKELAND -- Kyle said he's never had a Corona, a Bud Light or even a glass of champagne. He's not interested in buying them, either. But sometimes he pretends.

Whenever Kyle wants to earn a little extra money, the 18-year-old Polk Community College student helps police officers check whether businesses are selling alcohol to underage customers.

That means he'll go to local convenience stores, restaurants, bars and supermarkets and attempt to buy beer using a legal driver license that clearly shows he's not 21 years old.

Kyle is one of about 12 paid volunteers younger than 21 who work with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which is part of the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The Ledger is not using Kyle's last name to protect his privacy.

The Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco regulates the sale of alcohol and tobacco, and issues permits to businesses that sell the products.

Agents who work for the division are certified police officers.

Lakeland-based Lt. Brad Nelson oversees Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties for the division.

Volunteers have to be between 16 and 19 years old to participate in the program.

In addition, they cannot have more than three moving traffic violations on their driving record in the last seven years and can't have any points on their driver license, according to state guidelines.

Other guidelines require the volunteers to be cleanshaven and that the girls not wear clothes considered revealing. The volunteers are paid $35 every time they go out.

Kyle said he doesn't think what he does is exciting. Rather, he does it because "I'm interested in law enforcement."

And Kyle said he has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to the drinking-age law: If you're not 21, you're not supposed to drink -- even in the privacy of your own home or at a friend's house.

When Kyle goes out, he's not alone. Nelson and several Lakeland Police Department school resource officers will go along with him, driving in unmarked police cars.

According to state guidelines, at least one of the officers must witness the purchase of the alcohol.

Usually, Kyle and another volunteer will try to buy beer at about 20 to 24 businesses, said Lakeland Sgt. Gary Gross, who goes along for the ride and supervises the school resource officer unit.

Gross said typically about 30 percent of the stores sell alcohol to the volunteers.

The Police Department's most recent records -- from January to mid-December of 2003 -- show 17 of 47 businesses in Lakeland sold alcohol to underage patrons.

Nelson said the most popular excuse cashiers use is that they misread the ID.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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