Checking Identification

I.D. Basics

Twenty-one is the legal drinking age. If you, the seller or server of alcohol, ask for and see bona fide l.D. before you serve a patron, you can defend yourself against a charge of selling alcohol to a minor.

You are never required to sell or serve alcohol to anyone. A person does not have a legal “right” to buy alcohol, but you have a legal right to refuse service to anyone who cannot produce adequate written evidence of age.

If you have any doubts about an I.D., you have the right to, and should, refuse service. You may refuse service to anyone, but you cannot discriminate as to race, color, sex, religion, ancestry, disability, marital status, or national origin. Persons under age 21 are not protected by age discrimination laws. To refuse service, simply say: “I could lose my job if I accepted this I.D.” or “I’d be happy to serve you something else, but I can’t serve you alcohol.”

Bona Fide I.D.

Bona fide (legally acceptable) l.D. is one card that contains these six items:

  • Issued by a government agency (Federal, State, county, or city)
  • Name of the person
  • Date of birth
  • Physical description (height, weight, hair and eye color)
  • Photograph
  • Currently valid (not expired)

Examples of Acceptable I.D.

  • California Driver’s License/I.D. Card
  • Out-of-state Driver’s License/I.D. Card

A person may not combine two unacceptable I.D.’s to make one acceptable I.D.

Examples of Unacceptable I.D.

  • U.S. government immigrant I.D. card
  • Birth Certificate
  • School or work I.D. card
  • Swap-meet type I.D. card
  • Social security card
  • Temporary driver’s license
  • Check cashing card
  • Otherwise valid document that is expired, altered, borrowed, stolen, counterfeit or forged

A business may have a company policy that is stricter than the law; e.g., “We only accept California driver licenses.”

Legal Defense

You, as a licensee or employee, will have a legal defense if (1) you relied on bona  fide I.D.; and (2) you showed good faith in checking the I.D. To illustrate:

Bona Fide I.D.

An unexpired driver license or state issued I.D. card

+   Good Faith Effort
You make reasonable inspection, I.D. looks real, no obvious alterations, photo and description reasonably match person, and customer reasonably looks age 21

Legal Defense
You are able to defend yourself in court.

The F-L-A-G System for Checking I.D.

If a patron looks under 30 years old, say, “I will need to see your I.D., please. Could you remove it from your wallet?” Then, check the I.D. using the F-L-A-G system:

Ask for I.D. if they look under 30, then:

  • Feel
  • Look
  • Ask
  • Give Back

“F” = FEEL

Lumps and Bumps – Feel for information cut out or pasted on, especially near the photo and birth date. Minors will alter an I.D. by placing their own photo over the picture and laminating the whole card. Do not accept I.D.  cards with unofficial laminations. Do not accept obviously altered I.D. cards.

Layers – Real California magnetic stripe I.D.’s are made in three layers. The three layers are bonded with heat so they won’t come apart without destroying the card. Insert your fingernail or sharp object into a corner of the card. If the layers separate, the card is fake and you should not accept it.

Swipe – Swipe the I.D. through a magnetic stripe reader, if you have one. It is a foolproof method to detect a counterfeit I.D.

“L” = LOOK

Laminate – Look at the laminate.  There are four different official DMV laminates now in use: (1) Polyester (paper like); (2) Hologram with grid lines; (3) Hologram without grid lines and (4) Polasecure security laminate.

Alterations – Look for alterations at the birth date area.

Photograph – Minors can alter their hairstyles, eye makeup, and eye color. Therefore, focus on the person’s nose and chin. These features do not change.  For people with beards or mustaches, cover the beard or mustache and focus on the nose or ears. If the photo does not closely match the person, do not accept the I.D.  Look what side the photograph is on. The photograph for minors appears on the right; adults are on the left. People will alter the magnetic stripe card by pasting a new photo on top and laminating over it. Look for the thickening in this area.

Height and Weight – If they do not reasonably match the person, do not accept the I.D.

Date of Birth – Do the math! In many decoy programs the server is cited because he or she asked for I.D., but failed to calculate the person’s age. Legal age devices can be helpful.

Apparent Age – For you to have a successful defense, the. patron must look like they could be 21 years old. If not, do not accept the I.D. no matter how good it looks.

Expiration Date – Do not accept expired I.D. cards. Also, false I.D. cards will often have a colon (:) after the word “Expires.” Genuine cards do not have the colon.

Typeface – Counterfeits may be done on a typewriter and contain spelling or other errors. If you see this, do not accept the I.D.

Signature – A signature on a real California I.D. is smaller than normal size. This is because they are computer generated. The signature on a counterfeit is normal size and signed in blue or black ink. If you see this, do not accept the I.D.


What is your driver license number? Zip code?

What month were you born? If they respond with a number instead of the name of the month, they are probably lying.

Would you sign your name for me, please? A signature comparison can be a quick way to tell if someone is carrying a false I.D.

May I see another piece of I.D. with your name on it?  Most people who carry a false I.D. do not carry any other form of I.D. If it’s an out of state I.D., ask the person to describe the license plate of their home state. Then, look in the back of the I.D. checking guide to confirm.


If the I.D. passes the feel, look, and ask tests, give it back to the patron and make the sale. If it does not, refuse the sale.  Then, either give the I.D. back or seize it, depending on your company’s policy. If you seize an I.D. here are some suggestions:

Issue a receipt to the person. Inexpensive books of triplicate receipts are available at office supply stores.

Attach a copy of the receipt to the I.D.

Keep the third copy of the receipt for your records, with notes about the situation (who, what, when, where and why).

Turn the I.D. over to your local police department or sheriff’s office within 24 hours as required by law.

Good I.D. Policies

The following are some good I.D. policies:

  • Ask for I.D. from anyone who looks under 30 years old. If someone asks you, “Why are you checking my I.D.?” say, “Our policy is to card people who look under 30.”
  • Managers will support employees’ decisions to refuse service
  • If you must sell pitcher beer, ask for an I.D. from each person who receives a glass
  • Check I.D. as if you were cashing a $250 check because that is how much a mistake could cost you!
  • Door personnel and servers will both check I.D.’s
  • Post signs
  • Call the police for help if needed
  • If in doubt about an I.D., don’t accept it.

Identifying Minors (And How They May Fool You)

Be aware that minors may look and act in ways that may fool you. Some minors may look or act young. Others look or act in ways that may fool you.

Identifying Minors:

  • Physical Appearance
  • Behavior and Dress
  • Drink Orders
  • Where They Sit
  • Companions
  • I.D. Excuses