On a Saturday evening in March, a 25-year-old man went into Safeway on Main Street, filled a backpack and shopping cart with 26 full-sized bottles of liquor — Hennessy, vodka, scotch — and left the store without paying.
Two 16-year-old girls later admitted they were in the car, one at the wheel, as the man hit four retail stores that day, according to the Vancouver Police Department.
Next month, a new law will take effect that will give local law enforcement officers more tools to crack down on liquor thefts and with the aim of keeping liquor out of the hands of minors.
The measure, House Bill 2155, states that a licensee experiencing an “unacceptable rate of spirits theft” defined as two or more incidents in a six-month period, where the result is an underage drinker ends up possessing the booze, could see their license pulled by the state’s liquor control board.
That means even if the theft doesn’t involve a minor, but an underage drinker ends up with the stolen bottle, the retailer could be held responsible.
“If you lose a bottle … you could lose your liquor license,” said Rep. Chris Hurst, a Democratic lawmaker from Enumclaw, who helped spearhead the effort. “This is a huge change. I don’t think we’ll have to use it a lot. The threat of the law (will) change the behavior.”
The threshold may seem low considering in the first four months of this year, the Safeway at 3707 Main St. reported seven instances where spirits were stolen. The Safeway at 13719 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd. reported five different instances. And of course, Safeway isn’t alone.
Walgreens at 2521 Main St. reported three different cases in the same four-month time period, according to the Vancouver Police Department. Officers believe the bulk of thefts involved minors.
After voters approved privatizing liquor in 2011, Hurst said, there was a “market change.”
“Kids got their hands on beer before, but beer wasn’t being shoplifted — wine wasn’t (either),” he said. “Spirits changed that.”
Hurst, who is a former cop, said he decided to do some of his own investigative work after hearing stories of high rates of liquor thefts.
He visited stores at sporadic hours. He took photos. He called retail managers.
“What really got me was around Thanksgiving and Christmas time, there were stores with Jack Daniels and Jagermeister that were eight steps from the door at 2 and 3 in the morning,” he said. “You had to ring a bell to get someone out of the back from stocking. You could have loaded a truckload … before anyone noticed.”
It’s not an automatic that stores will lose their licenses, Hurst said. They can show a good-faith effort, he said, by moving liquor away from the door, or behind a glass case.
“The store has an opportunity to respond and say, ‘It’s not our booze,’ but if it turns out it did come from them, they have the opportunity to lock it up so it’s not stolen,” he said. “And the liquor board can impose that, if they fail to do that, then the liquor board can take their license.”
And he’s not worried it will deter stores from reporting crimes. Even if they do, he said, the cops “know where the booze is coming from.”
“God’s sake, you can look it up on Facebook or Twitter … kids are bragging about it,” he said.
Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, a Republican from Enumclaw, who also backed the measure, said the goal is to give more authority to local law enforcement, who can build a case and then report the stores to the state’s liquor control board.
“They know where the liquor is walking out of (and) they can direct the liquor control board, ‘Go to this Speedy Mart, Safeway or Fred Meyer,’ ” Dahlquist said. “That’s the idea, more private, local control. I think it’s pretty common sense.”
Ilia Botvinnik, a public information officer with the Vancouver Police Department, said Safeway has been trying to curb thefts.
Safeway did not return a call seeking comment.
Other stores, Botvinnik said, have been taking active steps to secure liquor, but it’s not easy.
“The theft is pretty constant; liquor specifically, it’s targeted by juveniles … and organized retail theft crews. They come in and work the I-5 corridor between here and Seattle,” he said.
Several crews, he said, can swipe thousands of dollars of merchandise a day. They can resell them to bars or underage drinkers.
Jan Gee, with the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents independent and locally owned grocery stores, said the responsibility has shifted too much on to retailers.
“We didn’t support liquor privatization; the public did, and the public wants it, and that means it’s a public problem,” she said.
“We need everyone involved in the solution. You can’t have retailers absorb expensive locked cages on the liquor — that is not the right answer. The right answer is everyone sit down and strengthen the laws and get local law enforcement involved.”
Echoing Botvinnik, she said people come in, load up their vans and get the word out to underage drinkers.
“Kids know where to buy liquor. Tell me how in the world a grocery store owner can defend themselves when they have three, four, five organized rings that leave with liquor. How in the world would our store prevent them from selling to minors?” Gee said.