Compliance Checks


Compliance checks use underage decoys to attempt to purchase alcohol from retail merchants.


To limit commercial availability of alcohol to underage youth

Typical Elements

  • State allowances for local jurisdictions to adopt ordinances.
  • Individuals/organizations with the necessary expertise work to establish an ordinance if one does not exist and local ordinances are allowed..
  • Clear consequences for non-compliance. Compliance checks can employ administrative, criminal, or educational sanctions for violators (i.e., seller and licensee). If sanctions include fines, community leaders can consider whether they should be equal or progressive for first, second, and subsequent violations (Alcohol Epidemiology Program, 2013).
  • Statutory protection in the jurisdiction against arrest for underage persons working as decoys at the direction of law enforcement.  If there are no protections, community leaders can use alcohol purchase surveys instead (Willingham, 2000).
    • Note: Using minors as buyers raises serious legal and safety issues because it is almost always illegal. Adult supervisors of underage buyers can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors, providing alcohol to minors, or other offenses. The underage buyer can be arrested or cited for possession or attempting to purchase alcohol. Always consult with legal counsel and with local law enforcement agencies before undertaking a compliance check using minors as buyers (Grube & Stewart, 1999).
  • Underage buyers (volunteer or paid) who ideally should: (Alcohol Epidemiology Program, 2013; Willingham, 2000):
    • Be under 20 years old and appear to be under 21 years old
    • Not live in the community being checked
    • Include both males and females
    • Represent a racial and/or ethnic mix that reflects the community being checked
    • Be willing to testify in court or other administrative hearings
  • Trainings for underage buyers on how to make alcoholic beverage purchases according to a consistent protocol.
  • A file on each trained buyer that includes (Willingham, 2000):
    • His or her personal history and photograph
    • Copy of driver’s license
    • Driving and criminal record checks
    • Injury waivers
    • Parental permission form (if under age 18)
    • Agreement of understanding
    • A list of compliance checks performed
  • Notifications for community leaders and retailers that outline the compliance check protocol and the timeframe prior to launch (Alcohol Epidemiology Program, 2013). Notification strategies can include:
    • Notifying all targeted alcohol sales licensees by letter
    • Including announcements in local media (e.g., TV, newspapers, school papers)
    • Inviting officers to present on compliance check activities at community group meetings
  • A detailed protocol for implementing compliance check procedures. For an example, see the University of Minnesota Alcohol Epidemiology Program’s procedure manual). Key elements can include (Alcohol Epidemiology Program, 2013; Moore et al., 2012; Willingham, 2000):
    • Randomly selecting targeted alcohol sales licensees based on criteria, such as the number of retail locations and retailers and types of outlets (e.g., liquor store, bar, restaurant, convenience store) in the community or designated geographic area.
      • Tip: Evidence from Oregon suggests that underage purchase rates tend to be highest in convenience and grocery stores (Paschall et al., 2007).
    • Deploying undercover officers to accompany the underage decoys. If an undercover officer witnesses the sale, this can decrease entrapment challenges.
    • Ensuring that participating officers’ reports are thorough, accurate, and submitted to the proper local or state licensing authorities to impose sanctions, as needed.
    • Arranging for citations to be issued once the compliance check operation is over; otherwise, violators can warn other retailers about upcoming compliance checks.
    • Educating public officials who will hear cases related to compliance check violations.
    • Sending congratulatory or thank-you letters to those retailers that refused to sell to underage buyers.
  • Media events following the initial compliance check campaign, such as (Willingham, 2000):
    • A press conference attended by key community leaders (e.g., mayor, state Alcohol Beverage Control [ABC] commissioner)
    • A press “ride along,” in which ABC officials deliver the citations to outlet owners
    • Coverage on all relevant news networks on the evening of the citation delivery
    • Coverage in the local newspaper (front page)
  • Compliance checks periodically or routinely throughout the year (approximately three to four times; e.g., Moore et al., 2012). Ideally, all licensees in the jurisdiction should be checked systematically. As needed, targeted checks can be conducted on retailers identified as violators in previous waves (Willingham, 2000).


  • Youth under age 21
  • Alcohol retailers


Implementation of compliance checks has been associated with:

  • Reductions in retail sales of alcohol to minors (Arnott, 2006; Elder et al., 2007; Preusser, Williams, & Weinstein, 1994; Reilly, Moore, & Magri, 2004; Scribner & Cohen, 2001)
  • Reductions in underage alcohol consumption, including both 30-day use and binge drinking (Reilly et al., 2004)
  • Increases in requests for identification from individuals attempting to purchase alcohol (Moore et al., 2012)

Note: The evidence to support the unique effects of compliance checks (coupled with media coverage to deter retail sales to minors) on underage drinking behavior should be interpreted with caution because, in those few studies assessing underage consumption, compliance checks were not implemented  fully and were implemented alongside other strategies (Elder et al, 2007). Therefore, it is difficult to attribute reductions in underage drinking to enhanced enforcement alone.


Alcohol Compliance Buy Checklist

Alcohol Compliance Checks: A Procedures Manual for Enforcing Alcohol Age-of-Sale Laws

Compliance Checks Policy

Guidelines for Using Underage Cooperating Individuals during Compliance Checks

Model Guidelines Concerning Compliance Checks for Underage Alcohol Sales

Model Policy and Guidelines for Alcohol and Tobacco Compliance Checks by Law Enforcement Officers

Preventing Underage Drinking: Using Getting to Outcomes™ with the SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework to Achieve Results

Reducing Alcohol Sales to Underage Purchasers: A Practical Guide to Compliance Investigations


Athena Forum: Excellence in Prevention

Preventing Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Enhanced Enforcement of Laws Prohibiting Sales to Minors


Alcohol Epidemiology Program. (2013). Alcohol compliance checks: A procedures manual for enforcing alcohol age-of-sale laws. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota. Retrieved from

Arnott, J. C. (2006). Youth alcohol enforcement: A community project. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 75(6), 8–11.

Elder, R. W., Lawrence, B., Janes, G., Brewer, R. D., Toomey, T., Hingson, R. W.,. . . Fielding, J. (2007). Enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sale of alcohol to minors: Systematic review of effectiveness for reducing sales and underage drinking. Transportation Research Circular: Traffic Safety and Alcohol Regulation Symposium, E-C123, 181–188.

Gabriel, R., Becker, L., Leahy, S. K., Landy, A. L., Metzger, J., Orwin, R., . . . Stein-Seroussi, A. (2008, April 30). Assessing the fidelity of implementation of the Strategic Prevention Framework in SPF SIG-funded communities: User’s guide and fidelity assessment rubrics (version 2).

Grube, J., & Stewart, K. (1999). Guide to conducting alcohol purchase surveys. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from

Moore, R. S., Roberts, J., McGaffigan, R., Calac, D., Grube, J. W., Gilder, D. A., & Ehlers, C. L. (2012). Implementing a reward and reminder underage drinking prevention program in convenience stores near Southern California Indian reservations. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 38(5), 456–460.

Paschall, M. J., Grube, J. W., Black, C., Flewelling, R. L., Ringwalt, C. L., & Biglan, A. (2007). Alcohol outlet characteristics and alcohol sales to youth: Results of alcohol purchase surveys in 45 Oregon communities. Prevention Science, 8(2), 153–159.

Preusser, D., Williams, A., & Weinstein, H. (1994). Policing underage alcohol sales. Journal of Safety Research, 2(3), 127–133.

Reilly, D., Moore, A., & Magri, J. (2004). Enhanced enforcement of laws to prevent alcohol sales to underage persons—New Hampshire, 1999–2004. MMWR, 53(21), 452–454.

Scribner, R. & Cohen, D. (2001). The effect of enforcement on merchant compliance with the minimum legal drinking age law. Journal of Drug Issues, 31(4), 857–866.

Willingham, M. (2000). Reducing alcohol sales to underage purchasers: A practical guide to compliance investigations. Rockville, MD: Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. Retrieved from