Authorities are trying to crack down on one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood: underage stars partying hard at trendy clubs on the Sunset Strip and Hollywood Boulevard.
Doormen at Hollywood hot spots have been lifting the velvet rope for teen stars for years. Two decades ago, Drew Barrymore became tabloid fodder after being spotted drinking at Hollywood clubs when she was 13 and 14.
These days, there's no hiding the illicit behavior, thanks to the aggressive tactics of Hollywood's ever-expanding paparazzi corps, who document celebrities through every nightclub-hopping step.
That's what happened over the weekend to actress Lindsay Lohan. The 20-year-old was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence after crashing her Mercedes convertible in Beverly Hills early Saturday, culminating a night of partying on the Sunset Strip.
A wave of publicity about underage drinking among celebrities has prompted the California Alcohol Beverage Control Board to step up undercover activities at several top nightspots. The ABC is seeking a 15-day closure order for Mood, a trendy Hollywood Boulevard club that was the subject of an undercover investigation.
Paparazzi photos made last year show Lohan, actors Mary-Kate Olsen and Frankie Muniz and Jesse McCartney, all underage at the time, partying there. (Lohan did not go to Mood on the night of her accident.) One photo posted on various celebrity websites showed McCartney, then 18, drinking from a Corona bottle at Mood.
But ABC officials said it takes more than a copy of Us Weekly to prove wrongdoing.
"We can't prove what's in the glass or where they were," said John Carr, a spokesman for the agency. "We need a witness on the ground."
The case against Mood is considered an important test. Some clubs seem willing to risk being caught serving underage stars if it will bring A-list talent -- and A-list publicity -- to their establishments, said L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district includes part of Hollywood Boulevard and who asked state officials for heightened patrols.
"To make a club profitable, they have to be celebrity-driven," Garcetti said. "People are willing to bend over backward to please celebrities. But you can't bend so backward that you break the law."
Even some paparazzi wonder why authorities aren't doing more.
"I'm not being sanctimonious here, but the crazy thing about what's happening now is nobody is stopping them," said Gary Morgan, chief executive of Splash News, saying his photographers have been chronicling underage drinking for years. "The clubs love the attention, but if this was any other underage kid, the police would have swooped in on the club arrested the owner or the barman."
The celebrity website www.TMZ.com last year posted photos of McCartney and other underage stars at Mood, and Harvey Levin, the site's managing editor, said he questions why authorities aren't more closely monitoring what goes on at such night spots.
"There's no way they didn't know what was going on at those clubs," he said. "Everybody saw it. It was all over TV. There was a lot of conduct that crossed the legal line in this town. The difference today is everybody's watching."
Carr said state officials are aware of the images of baby-faced celebrities carousing. But he defends the ABC agency's efforts, saying it has four agents to monitor 2,870 liquor licenses in the Los Angeles area.
"We read the same headlines, and it concerns us," Carr said. "But we can't be in those places every night."
Carr said investigators usually build cases using young-looking decoys trying to buy alcohol without identification. They've found that nearly one in five operators doesn't bother to check, he said. Undercover agents usually survey a business to make sure identification is being checked. If an officer believes a bar has served a drink to an underage customer, he or she can demand the patron's identification and confiscate the cocktail as evidence.
Over the last year, ABC has conducted 10 undercover operations in Los Angeles. Mood is the only bar it cited for serving drinks to minors.
The club's owner, David Judaken, did not return calls Tuesday. But Elizabeth Peterson, a friend of Judaken and the owner of several trendy bars, said she believes Mood is being unfairly targeted.
"It's totally not his fault," Peterson said, noting that many underage people have convincing fake identification. "It was judiciously checked."
However, Peterson, who runs bars downtown, said other operators should learn from Mood's experience.
"Fifteen days' closure can close you [forever]. People think these places are incredible cash cows, but not the first year," she said. "Allowing underage people in is just not worth it."
Garcetti agreed it can be difficult for bar owners to weed out all underage drinkers. But he was quick to point out that in the case of paparazzi-attracting celebrities, it's not so hard. Especially when the evidence is in such full view.
"Obviously there are times the paparazzi has gone too far," he said. "But they're also showing the truth about conditions in our night life."