A guy from out of state walks into a bar and says to the bartender, “I’ll have a beer please.”

The bartender looks at the guy’s ID and says, “Sorry pal, I can’t serve you.”

The guys says, “But it’s my real driver’s license and it says right here I’m over 21. So what the heck?”

Bartender replies: “Sorry man, it’s an out-of-state license and it’s illegal for me to accept it.”

I know, not a very funny joke.

That’s probably because it’s not a joke at all but a true, albeit paraphrased, account of what happened at two different Beverly, Mass. bars when my friend from Connecticut tried to have a Guinness with me.

I thought it was total crap. Illegal to accept out-of-state licenses? How would the bars of Boston, surrounded by about 50 colleges, ever survive? There’s no way.

Then I found out that there was a recent successful sting operation at bars and liquor stores across Beverly. The Garden City is home to three college campuses and apparently has a healthy circulation of fake, out-of-state IDs. I was starting to understand the bartenders’ precaution.

But I still wondered: is it really illegal in Massachusetts for a bar to accept an out-of-state ID? What about interstate reciprocity? What about having to turn away all that business at bars and liquor stores? There’s no way that it could possibly be true.

Well, it turns out that those overcautious bartenders were indeed wrong. It is not illegal to serve alcohol to someone over 21 who can only prove his age with an out-of-state driver’s license. But it’s not explicitly legal either.

First of all, in Massachusetts it’s legal to serve alcohol to anyone older that 21 and illegal to serve to anyone under 21. That’s the simple part. The hard part for sellers of alcohol is determining the true age of patrons who do not obviously appear older or younger than 21.

If fake IDs didn’t exist, age determination would be as easy as consulting the person’s ID. The age on the card would be the age they were. Cheers.

But since fake IDs do exist, bartenders must be skeptical. Here’s why: in Massachusetts, even if a bartender checked a person’s ID before serving them, if the person is found to be under 21, the bartender could still earn his establishment a liquor license suspension, as well as possible fines and jail time. But notice the emphasis on could ….

The law in Massachusetts, specifically M.G.L. c. 138, §34B, offers six forms of age proof that bartenders can “reasonably rely on” so that they won’t “suffer any suspension” of their licenses or “suffer any criminal liability” if it turns out later that they were tricked into serving a minor.

The reliable six are these:

  1. Massachusetts driver’s license
  2. Massachusetts Liquor Identification Card
  3. Massachusetts Identification Card
  4. Valid passport
  5. U.S.-issued passport card
  6. Military identification card

The makeup of the reliable six is based on two main assumptions. The first is that if any of the first three forms were faked and used to buy alcohol, either ubiquitous state-issued ID scanners or experienced bartenders, both familiar with Massachusetts IDs, would be able to detect the phoniness. The second is that the last three forms are prohibitively hard to fake.

So with that in mind, the law roughly says, “Look Mr. Bartender, we expect you to be able to be proficient at detecting at least six different kinds of fake IDs. We realize, however, that it would be unfair to ask you also to be expert on the exact makeup of the 49 other state’s various forms of ID. So just check IDs on the list of six. Don’t check any others because it’s too easy for you to get fooled. And if you do get duped by one of those reliable six, we won’t blame you for it because it must have been one heck of a fake.”

Okay, one more important legal nuance: another section of the law, M.G.L. c. 138, §34 does call it “illegal” if a bartender doesn’t check the ID of anyone “who he knows or has reason to believe is under 21.” So if a bartender thinks you look under-21, he is required by law to card you.

And that’s that. It’s an “it’s only illegal if you get caught” situation, where just three things are explicitly against the law:

  1. Serving someone you know is under 21
  2. Serving someone you reasonably suspect is under 21
  3. Serving someone under 21 whose non-reliable-six ID convinced you that they were over 21

Bartenders can technically accept out-of-state IDs. For that matter, they can accept any kind of ID they want. They don’t even have to card anyone that looks obviously older than 21.

Whatever their policy, they had better hope that if police come in and start asking to see patrons’ IDs that there aren’t any minors around, and if there were, that when those minors were carded, they had produced one of the reliable six.

No matter how they do it, as long as bartenders are preventing people under 21 from buying alcohol, the law abides.


Thanks to Chandra Allard, Deputy Communications Director with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, for helping me get my facts straight.