Compliance Checks or Sting Operations

In order to be legal, compliance checks or sting operations must be conducted without entrapment. Basically, entrapment is inducing people to commit a crime they are not “predisposed” to commit and would not ordinarily commit. 1

To avoid losing cases because defendants successfully claim entrapment, the standard compliance check specifies that if a cashier asks for identification, the under age person assisting the sting operation is to immediately cease the attempt to purchase alcohol and leave the establishment. The under age person is not to present a false identification card, give an excuse for not having any I.D., produce an ID that shows the correct age, or otherwise try to obtain an illegal sale after being asked for identification.

Because of legal requirements, sting operations may not be as successful as we might hope. This is because clerks quickly learn how to avoid entrapment. and under age purchasers learn how to demonstrate that they are not part of a sting operation. That is, an under age purchaser need only present a false I.D., make an excuse for not having an I.D., or even present his or her own legitimate I.D. The clerk then realizes that the sale can safely be made because the purchaser isn’t involved in a sting operation. 2

Some law enforcement offices follow different policies to avoid charges of entrapment or might even cross the line and be guilty of illegal entrapment. In some cases, they may permit the under age operatives to offer an excuse or otherwise persist to some degree. However, underage purchasers and clerks quickly become aware of what is locally done in sting operations and adjust their actions accordingly. 3

In spite of their low effectiveness, sting operations are popular. They satisfy public desire to “clamp down.” They satisfy law enforcement desire to demonstrate that it’s taking action and generates public and tax support. They satisfy parental desires to have community support in helping “control and protect” their young people. But what they don’t do is satisfy is the need to significantly reduce the perceived problem.

Fortunately, there is an effective and inexpensive way to reduce the use and abuse of alcohol by young people. It’s called social norms marketing and is based on the fact that most young people incorrectly think that most other young people are drinking and doing so frequently and heavily. Therefore, they feel pressured to engage in these behaviors to “fit in.“ When credible surveys are conducted and the results widely promoted or “marketed,” young people no longer feel the need to consume alcohol or to consume it so frequently or heavily. Study after study has demonstrated the dramatic effectiveness of this technique.

Another advantage of using this approach is that it releases law enforcement officers to engage in other crime prevention and apprehension activities.

To learn more, visit the National Social Norms Resource Center at, the Alcohol Education Project at, or the Montana Social Norms Project at

This page does not provide legal advice or opinion and none should be inferred. For legal advice, always consult a qualified lawyer.


  • 1. For a detailed explanation of entrapment, visit Compliance Checks and the Issue of Entrapment at
  • 2. Stings Have Failed.
  • 3. Alcohol Compliance Checks: A Procedures Manual for Enforcing Alcohol Age-of Sale Law. University of Minnesota. Alcohol Epidemiology Program, 2000. The anti-alcohol Robert Wood Johnson Foundation paid for the preparation and writing of this manual. That may explain why it recommends that the buyer give an excuse for not having identification, even if the clerk refuses to sell the alcohol. The procedure appears to be perilously close to entrapment, if it doesn’t actually constitute illegal entrapment. For more on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, visit The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Financier of Temperance.