On 26 December 2015, Facebook user Timothy Delaney published the above-reproduced status update; it was widely shared, and appeared to be a possible iteration of the common shunned serviceman urban legend.
According to Delaney, his “son [Connor] went in [to the gas station next to Higbie Bagels, a Mobil] to buy chew” and presented military identification to verify his age. Delaney says the cashier said “‘no army’, NOT HERE,” adding:
This is a god dam shame. Do not go there. Clearly they support anti American ways. Makes me sick. Wake up America. It’s here in your backyard.
We spoke to the owner of the Mobil gas station. He told us that Delaney’s son indeed attempted to purchase tobacco at his gas station, although neither Delaney nor the gas station provided a date on which this occurred.
The owner claimed that Delaney’s son presented a military ID card, which indicated he was not yet 21. In Suffolk County, where the Mobil is located, tobacco laws changed in January 2015: while 19 was the minimum age for tobacco purchases until 2014, in 2015 the age rose to 21. A release dated 31 December 2014 explained:
Commissioner of Health Services James Tomarken, MD, MPH, reminds vendors and residents that as of January 1, 2015, it is illegal to sell tobacco, e-cigarettes, and liquid nicotine in Suffolk County to persons under the age of 21. Prior to January 1, it had been illegal to sell these products to persons under the age of 19.
Dr. Tomarken said that it is also important to know that since 2009, it has been illegal to use e-cigarettes and similar products in public places where traditional forms of smoking are banned. Anyone who violates these provisions may be fined a minimum of $300.
It’s possible that the young man misinterpreted the interaction; had that gas station violated the law, they would have faced a minimum fine of $300. The gas station owner emphasized that the customer was both friendly and well-behaved. The owner also said footage of the transaction could be retrieved, but that the security tapes would have to be sent out to a company in order to extract that transaction amid hours of other footage.
We attempted to contact Delaney, who provided non-responsive answers to our questions. However, on 29 December 2015, a reader unrelated to the controversy forwarded a Facebook post dated July 2015 which suggested Connor Delaney turned 21 in that month.
On 29 December, we again contacted the owner of the Mobil station to ask about the transaction. The owner told us that the station utilizes ID scanning technology which only recognizes New York State ID. Such scanners are commonly in use in other local establishments dealing in tobacco and alcohol.
The owner further stated that Delaney’s ID didn’t scan, and that the clerk asked him how old he was. According to the owner, Delaney stated he was 20; the clerk advised him that under the new law in Suffolk County, customers must be 21 to purchase tobacco. The owner stated that Delaney then said he currently lived in another state, in which he was able to purchase tobacco freely.
The owner added that statewide guidance with respect to age verification encouraged use of a “right to refuse” during any transaction in which the customer appeared to be under the age of 25 (or 40) and was unable to prove their age. As the owner claimed, state guidelines emphasize caution in accepting identification; any mistakes made are the responsibility of the retail outlet:
The state-certified tobacco sales training program shall include instruction in: (1) the health effects of tobacco use, especially at a young age; (2) the legal purchase age; (3) legal forms of identification; (4) reliance upon legal forms of identification and the right to refuse sales when acting in good faith; (5) means of identifying fraudulent identification of attempted underage purchasers; (6) techniques used to refuse a sale; (7) the penalties arising out of unlawful sales to underage individuals; and (8) the disciplinary action or loss of employment that may be imposed by the retailer for a violation of the law or a deviation from the policies of the retailer.
That same state-issued guidance addressed the use of ID scanning technology for sales of alcohol and tobacco:
Electronic Age Verification: Any person that sells Restricted Products may perform a transaction scan as a precondition for the purchases. Whenever the information deciphered by the transaction scan fails to match the information printed on the driver’s license or nondriver identification card, or the transaction scan indicates that the information is false or fraudulent, the attempted transaction shall be denied. A licensee, agent or employee of such licensee shall only use a device capable of deciphering any electronically readable format, and shall only use the information recorded and maintained through the use of such devices for the purposes of verifying the identification of the purchaser. No licensee or agent or employee of such licensee shall disseminate or resell the information recorded to any third person. Use of a transaction scan shall not excuse any person from the exercise of reasonable diligence.
Modern iterations of the “shunned serviceman” rumor tend to target attendants who appear to be of Arab extraction. Prior rumors predicated on a near-identical template affixed themselves to a Marathon gas station in Pontiac, Illinois; a Dunkin’ Donuts location in Crown Point, Indiana; restaurants in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Duluth, Minnesota; a Shell gas station in Tennessee; a Shady Maple restaurant in Pennsylvania; a Charley’s Grilled Subs outlet in Stockton, California; and a Sak-N-Pak gas station in Corbin, Kentucky.
We visited the Mobil location on Higbie Lane in West Islip, New York at approximately 5:40 PM on 30 December 2015; after speaking with an employee, we asked if he would provide us with a photograph of the identification scanner he described on the phone:
It’s true Delaney’s son was unable to purchase tobacco at the Higbie Lane Mobil on or around 25 December 2015. However, based on existing information, the reason for that refusal appeared to be due to Delaney’s inability to verify his age sufficiently.