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Stores With High Shoplifting Rate Could Lose Liquor License Under New State Law

Steve Helber
AP Photo

Grocery store owners who are losing liquor to shoplifters could pay a hefty price. Under a new law that takes effect June 13, the state can take away the store's license to sell liquor.

The crack down is aimed at keeping liquor out of the hands of underage drinkers.Thefts Began With Privatization

As soon as liquor was privatized in Washington in 2012, Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, began hearing stories from cops about juveniles being caught with hard liquor. Hurst says that wasn't the case with state-run liquor stores, which had a theft rate of about zero.

Almost always, he says, the bottle of whiskey or tequila had been “lifted” from a retail shelf.

While many store owners did begin locking the liquor away and putting up special security systems, Hurst was frustrated by how lax some stores remained.

“You know, there were stores that had, eight steps from the door at one o'clock in the morning, Jose Cuervo or Jack Daniels or Jaegermeister — stuff that kids, of course, love and like to steal,” Hurst said.

New Law Goes After Retailers

Under the new law, a store that doesn't secure its liquor could lose its license from the state Liquor Control Board.

The state will be able to take the license away if the store has, within six months, two shoplifting incidents that result in the alcohol ending up in a juvenile's hands.

Hurst, who sponsored the legislation, says he thinks it’s already making a difference. He says he recently returned to a store that had displayed its liquor next to the front door.

“And guess what, they have all of the spirits now put in lockable cabinets that they can lock late at night, when there’s fewer people in the store," he said.

There aren't statistics on liquor theft in Washington; it's lumped in with all retail theft. But there is some indication it is on the decline. 

Brendon Brophy with the Seattle City Attorney's Office is the liaison with the Seattle Police Department's North Precinct. He says citizen complaints about retail liquor theft are down, which he attributes to stores doing a better job with security.

"They've secured the alcohol, and we haven't had the same number of complaints," Brophy said.

Stores Want State To Get Tougher On Shoplifters

So what do grocery store owners think of this new hammer the state has to shut down their liquor sales?

The trade associations representing the stores did not officially oppose the new law. But Jan Gee, who heads the Washington Food Industry Association, says many retailers are frustrated lawmakers haven’t done more to punish the shoplifters themselves.

For example, she says, the sentence for liquor theft could be tripled “so that people know that there’s a significant, significant penalty.”

And, she says, the laws should be toughened for shoplifters who sell the liquor to minors. Currently, liquor theft is treated the same as any other theft. Often, Gee says, police won't even come out to the store if the dollar amount of the theft is less than $5,000.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.