The Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Questioning by the manager of a Riverhead restaurant probing into a patron’s legal status when the patron presented a valid foreign passport for proof of age was unlawful and discriminatory, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

A Riverhead man says he presented his Honduran passport as proof of legal age to buy an alcoholic beverage at Buffalo Wild Wings Saturday night and the restaurant manager questioned him about his visa and entry into the United States.

“This is pretty straightforward national origin or race discrimination that’s prohibited by human rights law,” said Irma Solis, director NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter.

“Questioning someone about their status when other customers are not treated in the same way violates the law,” Solis said.

Newlyweds Jessica and Roberto Banegas went out to eat with some friends Saturday night at Buffalo Wild Wings in Riverhead — a favorite place for the young couple to dine and socialize. Their party of six was seated and their server came to take their drink order.

Roberto Banegas, 22, a Honduran national, presented his passport as proof of legal age — as he always does when purchasing alcohol.

The server said she needed her manager to approve the passport. She took the document and left. Soon she returned with a man who was flipping through the pages of the passport as he approached their table.

“He asked Carlos where his visa stamp was,” Jessica Banegas said, using her husband’s middle name. “He asked him where was the stamp from when he entered the country. He asked him where he got the passport. He asked a lot of other questions that were not appropriate to the situation — buying a drink,” she said.

“I told him I didn’t know you needed a visa to buy a drink,” said Banegas, speaking up for her husband of four months.

The man, who identified himself only as “Brock” said he was the new general manager and just trying to “verify this passport,” she said, “explaining there was a lot of underage drinking going on with the general manager before him.”

“My husband uses his passport everywhere,” she said. “It’s a valid passport, it’s got his photo, his name, his date of birth, all on the second page of the document, which is laminated. It’s never a problem,” she said.

Under New York State Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, “a valid passport issued by the United States government or any other country” is acceptable documentation of proof of legal age.

“Usually while holding the passport, they ask ‘What’s your name?
How old are you? What’s your birthday?’ There’s never any questions about visas. Why now? It was practically an interrogation,” she said. “If it wasn’t an acceptable form of ID to buy a drink, that’s all he had to say and we would have been fine.” she said.

“Instead, it made us all feel very uncomfortable.”

Jessica Banegas said the group felt like they were being singled out because of their ethnicity. They decided to leave.

“It feels a bit like racism,” Roberto Banegas said in a phone interview Monday night. “There was really no reason to ask questions like that. People go there to eat and drink. The Latino community is part of their business. You shouldn’t need to prove your legal status to be served. If so, they should have a sign saying you need legal status to go there,” he said.

A spokesperson for Buffalo Wild Wings said the company apologizes “for any inconvenience this may have caused the guest.” The company is investigating the incident, the spokesperson said.

“We do accept a valid passport as a form of identification to purchase alcohol. While we have not yet completed our investigation, we do understand the manager had questions about the validity of the information on the passport,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Anyone confronted with a situation like this should file a complaint with both the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and the New York State Human Rights Commission, NYCLU’s Solis said.

“It’s important so they get a call reminding them that they’re really not supposed to do that,” she said. “It’s against the law and they could be liable.”

“I’m the type of person to not get sad or sick over this type of thing,” Roberto Banegas said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to feel bad if they were treated the same way.”

His wife said she called the company’s corporate office to complain yesterday. Someone called back and offered her “reward points,” she said with exasperation, “so I could go back and have wings!”

“I’ve never been in a situation like this,” Jessica Banegas said. The 24-year-old Brooklyn native said she’s lived in Riverhead five years and lived in Hampton Bays 11 years before that.

“This happening to my husband really hit me in the heart.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.