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Privatizing Liquor: Will a Spike in Stores Strain ABC Cops?

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While Gov. Bob McDonnell proceeds with plans — due by summer's end — to privatize Alcoholic Beverage Control stores, questions remain about another crucial ABC function: enforcement.

The ABC has about 130 special agents statewide who are sworn law officers and may carry firearms. But if McDonnell's plans to privatize the state's 330 stores and that number expands to perhaps 900 stores, the ABC's enforcement responsibilities will increase by 30 to 40 percent, says Robert Grey, a former ABC chairman and a partner at the Hunton & Williams law firm.

“What do you do with the enforcement?” he asks, noting that ABC will have new responsibilities to oversee the privatized stores along with bars and restaurants. “Do you expand ABC enforcement or just turn it over to the state police or other someone else?”

The issue could be critically important to club and restaurant owners. How agents communicate and enforce laws relating to overcrowding, drinking by minors or other offenses can translate into whether they stay in business.

“My agent has been awesome and supportive but there are other agents who are overzealous,” says Davis Bess, owner of Cha Cha's Cantina in Shockoe Bottom.

Already, ABC agent workloads — enforcing liquor and cigarette laws — can lead to permit delays, according to Michael Byrne, former operator of now-defunct Richbrau downtown. “I once applied for a banquet permit but by the time the ABC got around to approving it,” he says, “the time for the banquet had passed.”

Although all 50 states have some form of liquor regulation, not all states have the armed and empowered agents that Virginia does. Iowa, for example, privatized its liquor stores in 1987 and ended its enforcement role in 2002, turning it over to local police. “It was a budget cut and had nothing to do with privatization,” says Tanya Dusold, a spokeswoman with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

McDonnell is likely to need a special session of the General Assembly to consider privatizing. Enforcement changes could come then. Among possible issues is a pet peeve of restaurant owners: ABC requires that restaurant receipts reflect 65 percent food sales to 45 percent alcohol sales. “What do you do on a slow food night?” one restaurant owner asks.

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