Six cited for selling tobacco to underage persons in BHC

Patti Carpenter

A check of 14 randomly selected businesses conducted in March found six employees of Big Horn County businesses in violation of a law that prohibits selling tobacco products to persons under the age of 21. According to Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn, this is an extremely high number, almost unheard of in previous checks.
The sheriff’s department does tobacco and alcohol checks twice a year.
It’s no secret that the sheriff’s department does these checks. They are conducted four times a year, twice for tobacco and twice for alcohol. According to Blackburn, businesses understand the checks will be done during the year; they just don’t know the exact dates they will be done.
“We can guarantee, like death and taxes, that we will be stopping by businesses that sell these products twice a year to do these checks,” said Blackburn. “The only thing they don’t know is the exact date it will happen.”
Blackburn noted that not all businesses that sell these products are checked every time. The state randomly selects the businesses that will be checked and provides a list to the sheriff’s department.
“It’s not something we pick and choose,” he said.
The sheriff’s department sends a young person over the age of 18 and under the age of 21 into the business to purchase the product. They use their own identification, which clearly identifies them as under the legal age limit to purchase the products.
“It’s done just as regularly as clockwork,” said Blackburn. “In March, we contacted 14 businesses throughout Big Horn County. Usually, if there’s one or two businesses that sell to an underage person, we are surprised. This year there were six businesses that sold tobacco to underage people. That is a bit of a concern, especially since we make it completely well-known that we are doing this on a regular basis. We have been very open and very forthright about it.”
Blackburn said, if the clerk does sell to the underage person, the clerk is cited and required to appear before a judge. Their business manager or supervisor is notified. A judge decides whether to issue a warning or to impose a fine up to $750 and/or up to six months of jail time. Oftentimes, the judge requires the individual to attend a special class, as well.
“The judge considers how many times the offender has been there and whether or not they are willing to take a safe server class,” said Blackburn. “The citation requires they must appear in court. Whatever penalty is imposed is completely up to the judge to decide.”
Blackburn said he found it very disturbing this time that several of the people selling to the underage person didn’t even ask for the buyer’s identification or failed to check an ID that was requested.
Blackburn noted that underage persons in many states have a special ID that makes it obvious that the person is under the legal age to buy tobacco or alcohol. In the state of Wyoming, an underage person’s identification is in a vertical format and the ID carries a statement showing the exact date the individual is eligible to buy products with a 21-year-old age requirement.
“It says on their actual ID their age and their date of birth and if they are underage to purchase alcohol or tobacco,” said Blackburn. “There’s no tricks. All that needs to be done is to ask for the ID and to look at the ID. There’s no entrapment here.”
Of course, the clerk must also comply with the law by refusing to sell to the individual.
“All they have to do is read the ID and say, ‘I can’t sell to you,’” explained Blackburn. “We don’t want anyone to get a citation. We want 100 percent compliance. This shows that we have a problem with that. We’ve just never seen this kind of volume of violations.”
In Lovell, violations took place at the Market and the Conoco Country Store. Other violations were found at the Cowley Mercantile, Wheeler’s Market in Basin and, in Greybull, at the Big Horn Co-op and Family Dollar.
“We’re not trying to trick people. We’d actually prefer not having to do this,” said Blackburn. “It’s a requirement throughout the state, and these checks are conducted in every county in the state. It’s a known fact. There’s no secret here.
“This is not something we thought up. We’re not trying to be heavy handed. We’ve been doing this for years and years, and this is probably the highest number of cases we’ve seen in a while, and we don’t know why.
“So, we’re asking everyone to be more vigilant about it. We’re not just picking on any one business. We’re not trying to be big evil dogs that go after everybody, but it’s quite obvious that there’s been a bit of a letdown in the county and it’s important that we all work together to protect our youth.”