After a recent two-day motorcycle ride in Colorado, Jay Bennett stopped in Taos on his way back to Santa Fe and ordered what he said was a delicious local amber ale.
That night, he and his girlfriend went out to dinner in Santa Fe at La Choza on Alarid Street. He wanted another beer. But instead of getting an IPA, Bennett got a shot of reality.
Even though Bennett is 22, he said, the bartender wouldn’t accept his Washington state-issued identification card because it’s vertical instead of horizontal.
It’s not the first time this has happened to him, and he’s not alone. Others have reported that other Santa Fe bars, restaurants and liquor stores won’t serve alcohol to someone with a vertical ID even though they’re old enough to buy alcoholic beverages.
“It doesn’t make sense to deny people something they’re legally allowed to buy,” said Brian Sweeney, who witnessed a group of men who were “clearly over 21” leave Marble Brewery in Santa Fe after they were denied service on a recent night.
“We live in America. If you’re 21, you should be able to buy alcohol,” he said.
The practice of not accepting vertical IDs comes at the same time the city is trying to breathe new life into its nighttime economy and make Santa Fe a more hip and happening place.
At least one Santa Fe business, the Cowgirl BBQ, displays a sign inside the restaurant stating that vertical IDs are not accepted as proof of age. Nicholas Ballas, one of the owners, said they don’t accept vertical IDs to ensure that no one under the age of 21 is consuming alcohol.
“If they have a corroborating form of state-issued ID that shows that they’re 21, we’re more than happy to serve somebody,” he said. “But the vertical ID alone has been abused notoriously, so we’re just being extra careful.”
The issue is not unique to Santa Fe. The Internet is riddled with stories of people with vertical IDs who have been denied alcohol even though they’re of legal age to buy it.
States, including New Mexico, issue vertical IDs to people who are under 21 primarily to make it easier for law enforcement, as well as retailers, to determine the age of the cardholder. The IDs are still valid after the cardholder turns 21.
While at least one state — Arizona — makes it illegal to sell alcohol to anyone with a vertical ID regardless of age, New Mexico doesn’t.
“Many establishments have adopted this as a corporate practice, because their insurance company requires it or to minimize the risk of accidental alcohol service to minors,” S.U. Mahesh, a spokesman for the New Mexico Alcohol and Gaming Division, said in an email. “The law is a floor for standards, not a ceiling, and businesses are free to adopt more strict practices in line with their own policies.”
Sarah Carswell, general manager at La Choza, expressed surprise that one of her bartenders wouldn’t accept Bennett’s vertical ID. She said the restaurant doesn’t have a “set policy” and that servers are free to use discretion.
“I try to respect people’s personal boundaries without saying it’s a house policy,” she said.
“So, if somebody who is 19 years of age and has just been through the certification process [to serve alcohol] and it’s their first night out on the floor and somebody presents them with a vertical ID, a very classic default would be, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t accept that.’ But I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t imagine not accepting a vertical ID as long as all the information that’s on the license provides us with the information that we need in order to verify the age of the person ordering the beer.”
Bennett said his ID isn’t expired because he renewed it before leaving the country to study abroad for four months. He said it’s vertical because he got it just weeks before turning 21.
“Of course, a refused beer here and there isn’t a tragedy, but it seems to me that the vertical ID policy is an unnecessary handicap on local businesses,” said Bennett, who was so incensed by his experience at La Choza and elsewhere that he penned a “My View” published in The New Mexican.
“As I suggested in the ‘My View’ article, scanners and black lights would provide better protection against fraudulent identification and ultimately save businesses money,” Bennett added.
CeCe Martinez, who works at Rodeo Plaza Liquors on Rodeo Road, said the store will accept vertical IDs to sell cigarettes but only sometimes for alcohol.
“Every now and then, we’ll tell somebody, ‘We’ll take it this time, but not again,’ ” she said.
Businesses, however, fear the repercussions of selling alcohol to a minor. A first offense carries a fine of up to $2,000 and a one-day suspension of alcohol sales. For three or more offenses within a 12-month period, the penalty is a $10,000 fine and a revocation of the state-issued license to sell liquor.
“It’s a very serious thing, and so we’re really, really careful about that,” said John Rickey, general manager at La Fonda on the Plaza.
A man from Midland, Texas, recently wrote a letter to the editor stating that his 21-year-old daughter was denied a glass of wine at the bar at La Fonda because she has a vertical ID.
“She is currently working an internship at a resort in northern New Mexico and was aware that she might be carded, so she brought not only her valid Texas driver’s license, but also her birth certificate, her Social Security card and her current university identification with photograph. She was still denied service,” Kelly Cook wrote. “I am wondering where common sense went in Santa Fe.”
Cook did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Rickey said La Fonda will accept a vertical ID if the cardholder can provide proof showing that they have a new ID on the way after they’ve turned 21.
“We’re trying to be a responsible business doing the right thing, and I understand some people may be upset about it and it might cause some hurt feelings here and there,” he said. “But I would rather do that than have one of my staff get in trouble or the hotel get in trouble. There’s a lot of risk in regards to that, so we try to err on that side of caution.”
Rickey said New Mexico’s liquor laws require the buyer to have a valid form of ID.
“Even if you’re as old as me, and I’m in my mid 50s — what little hair I have left is gray, so it’s real obvious that I’m not under 21 — technically for a server to serve me, they should be seeing some form of identification,” he said.
Sweeney, who said he witnessed four men leave Marble Brewery on a recent Monday after they were refused service over the vertical ID, said the policy of not accepting vertical IDs is hurting businesses financially — and it isn’t helping Santa Fe’s reputation.
“Santa Fe certainly has a reputation as not being a haven for younger people, and the mayor is obviously going to great pains to change that,” he said. “This seems to me a natural change to be made to make the city more welcoming to young people, especially the nightlife.”
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danieljchacon.