Should the Iowa City City Council expand PAULA-ratio restrictions?


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If there is a legal drinking age — whether that age is 14, 18, or 21 — there must be a way to enforce the drinking age.

As the 21-ordinance closes some bars and inspires others to more thoroughly inspect their clientele, PAULA citations at food-based restaurants with 21-ordinance exemptions are increasing. To effectively enforce the drinking age, restaurant liquor licenses, just like those at music venues, should be dependent on meeting a set PAULA-per-police-visit ratio.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d like to see the drinking age lowered at least to 18, but even then there should be repercussions both for underage drinkers (although preferably not outlandish criminal penalties) and for businesses that serve alcohol to underage people. For a drinking age to be remotely enforceable, it can’t just be the police watching; businesses that sell alcohol should check customer IDs consistently, too.

There’s a financial incentive to flout drinking laws: more potential customers means more sales means higher profits. Without an external disincentive, restaurants are unlikely to card — leaving large holes in the drinking age regulations, as there’s no way for police to be present at all times.

The PAULA-to-police-visit ratio provides an adequate deterrent from knowingly ignoring drinking laws. Just as with music venues, restaurants who serve alcohol to too many underage people would face problems renewing their liquor licenses. It seems only fair.

There are definitely some problems with PAULA-ratio requirements. Police checks should be standardized, removing any unfortunate variables; the ratio should be set reasonably low, allowing for human error at various restaurants.

(Perhaps there could be a possible exemption in the state law, too, for family affairs — a sip of Mom’s sangria shouldn’t come with a fine of several hundreds of dollars, and it’s a little silly to expect restaurants to scrutinize family tables.)

But problems with a policy shouldn’t mean scrapping it entirely. There’s room for revision, overhaul, and standardization; fine-tuning the application of any kind of legislation usually takes some time. The City Council should expand the PAULA-ratio restrictions to restaurants, too.

— Shay O’Reilly


The PAULA-to-police-visit ratio is an arbitrary method of enforcing alcohol restrictions and the practice only serves to hurt local area businesses.

The PAULA-ratio has never been shown to have been an effective tool for curbing underage downtown drinking during the time it was heavily relied upon. At best, it was effective at shutting down businesses with scant evidence as to whether or not the business was actively attempting to prevent underage people from getting their hands on alcohol. Thus, good-faith effort or not, the policy had adverse effects on downtown business owners and their employees.

The main reason the PAULA-ratio does not work, and never will, is because it’s based on a loosely defined set of variables. Police visit a given establishment while keeping their eyes out for underage consumption. If they succeed in finding underage people who are drunk or possess alcoholic beverages, they cite them with PAULAs. If the business averages more than one PAULA citation per visit, it risks losing its liquor license.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this method. For starters, whether one officer or five visit, the tally remains as only one visit. Obviously, this presents a problem for standard enforcement procedures. But even if drunk underage people are in a given bar or restaurant, there are no assurances they were being served alcohol in the establishment.

The state agrees that the policy is not well enough defined. In July 2010, Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division Administrator Stephen Larson ruled that Iowa City’s strict policy of renewing liquor licenses based on the ratio was at odds with Iowa Code. Furthermore, Larson acknowledged the PAULA-ratio did not provide a clear measure as to whether or not someone had consumed alcohol inside the visited business.

If Iowa City wishes to remain a decision-maker in local businesses being allowed a liquor license, officials should go back to the policy of reviewing each application or renewal on a case-by-case basis by the police. Leave it to those most qualified to make a well-balanced judgment: the police.

— Matt Heinze

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