Students need not fear bottle barcode myth

Ryan Brown, Managing Editor

A belief that police can track alcohol purchases by scanning bar codes has been responsible for more than a few mangled liquor-bottle labels at Pitt-Johnstown.

Many prospective underage drinkers have heard the refrain from 21-year-old friends: “Make sure you scrape that code off. I don’t want to get arrested.”

The concern, however, is baseless: police methods for nabbing liquor providers are notably less high-tech, boiling down to simple questioning and a hope that the distributors are on the scene when officers arrive.

“We try to find out where it came from,” said Steve Bray, senior Richland Township police patrolman. “That’s our No. 1 question.”

Bray said underage drinkers are usually closelipped, making excuses to protect their purchasers.

“If we ask 10 people, eight found it along the road,” he said. “The other two say they got it from home.”

Police can check to determine whether the liquor originated in Pennsylvania, but aren’t able to narrow the list to one purchaser, Bray said.

Campus Police Associate Chief Eric Zangaglia echoed Bray’s statements: school officers try to identify alcohol providers, but underage drinkers are rarely forthcoming with names. It usually comes down to observation; if officers find a room full of underage drinkers and a lone 21-yearold, they can start with him, he said.

Zangaglia said he could only wish police had access to the high-tech methods persistent in college legends.

It’s not hard to imagine where the stories originate: employees at Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores frequently swipe ID cards through a scanner, rather than eyeballing the cards as bartenders often do.

In the myth, police can trace a bottle’s bar code – normally used for stocking purposes – to its original purchaser, catching those who bought the liquor and passed it on to minors.

The swipe, however, serves only to confirm the ID is real, according to state Liquor Control Board spokesperson Stacey Witalec.

“We do check within the store in terms of carding everyone,” Witalec said. She laughed at the mention of a complex tracking system, saying the only comparable program in place would be for discount cards set to be released soon.

“It’s like what you would have when you go to a supermarket,” Witalec said. The card would track purchases for commercial, rather than criminal, purposes.

Like the police, the Liquor Control Board relies on relatively low-tech methods to prevent 21-year-olds from buying liquor for minors.

If a store clerk thinks a buyer is behaving strangely or may be using a fake ID, he can refuse service, Witalec said. And if a 21-year-old near a college campus is seen buying liquor in bulk, they can alert state police.

Witalec said the board is particularly concerned with fake ID proliferation, which allow underage students to bypass the 21-year-old middleman.

Cardswiping can often prevent fake IDs from getting through, but Witalec said a handful of Chinese companies have managed to produce highly realistic cards that can get past even the most vigilant store clerks.

“Pennsylvania is one of the ones they replicate really well,” she said.

Despite technological advancements on the other side, police said they continue to rely on the threat of punishment to dissuade those considering furnishing alcohol to minors.

“It’s become such a big problem,” Bray said. “You can end up with a $1,000 fine, a $2,000 fine . . . even 30, 60, 90 days in jail.”