Friday, March 31, 2006

Legislative Committee is going to review TABC's tactics

Public outrage and the potential for lost business caused by state regulators arresting bar patrons for being intoxicated prompted a key lawmaker on Tuesday to call for a suspension of the program pending a review by the Texas Legislature.
"Based on what I'm hearing from my constituents and from all across the state, this is a good time to put this program on hold until we have an opportunity to review it," said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, vice chairman of the House committee that oversees the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. "I'm getting a lot of calls and e-mails, and it's absolutely all negative."
The commission has garnered national publicity in recent days over its stepped-up enforcement program called Sales to Intoxicated Persons, or SIPs, where undercover officers observe customers in bars and taverns and arrest those who appear drunk. Bartenders and wait staff who serve intoxicated patrons are also subject to arrest.
Carolyn Beck, a spokeswoman for the TABC, said the SIPs program has been around for several years. But the agency has beefed it up after lawmakers last year authorized the hiring of more than 100 additional employees to force compliance with state laws governing alcohol use.
"Our focus is public safety," Beck said. "We intervene when it appears that someone is a danger to himself or others because of being intoxicated in a public place."
Geren, whose Fort Worth barbecue restaurants serve alcohol, said his employees are trained to identify when a patron is becoming intoxicated and will cut them off without hesitation.
The House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, of which Geren is vice chairman, will hold a hearing on the SIPs program April 17 in Austin.
The program has its supporters, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which regularly lobbies the Legislature to take measures to end Texas' distinction of having the highest DWI fatality rate in the nation.
But critics have pointed out that the program could cost Texas valuable convention business, especially considering that many arrests have occurred in hotel cocktail lounges where patrons planned to travel no farther than the elevator that would take them to their rooms. In other instances, people were arrested even though they had been accompanied by a designated driver, according to reports.
Phillip Jones, president of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the program has the potential to devastate the Texas tourism and convention industry.
"I just got an e-mail from someone who said he was considering bringing a convention with 25,000 people to Dallas," Jones said. "He told me that until you guys fix this problem, no city in Texas is even going to be on the list."
Jones said that the convention industry pumps more than $8 billion annually into the North Texas economy, and that the cocktail hour is often integral to the experience.
"That's where people relax, socialize and network," Jones said. "They have a right to do that without fear of being arrested."
Under Texas law, anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher is considered too drunk to drive. The legal definition of public intoxication is "not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties because of alcohol or drug use."
Public intoxication is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. A law enforcement officer has the discretion of issuing a citation or making an arrest.
When the program gained attention last week, TABC Administrator Alan Steen sent a memo to state lawmakers listing the agency's justifications for stepping up enforcement.
"Just because someone is not driving or has a designated driver, it does not make it legal to become intoxicated in a public place to the extent that the person may be a danger to him/herself or others," Steen's memo said.
Geren and other lawmakers said that while they have no sympathy for drunken drivers, they are concerned by what appears to be heavy-handed tactics against otherwise law-abiding citizens who are enjoying a night out.
"I'm from a pretty conservative district, but I haven't heard from anybody who supports this," said state Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington.
Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor's office has received more than 140 calls and letters concerning the SIPs program, all of them critical.
Beck, the TABC's spokeswoman, said that the agency's enforcement also includes aggressive steps to curtail underage drinking, even though it often goes unpublicized.
"We have a hot line staffed 24 hours a day where someone can report pasture parties and other events where minors are drinking illegally, and we will respond and take action," she said.
Geren said he would do nothing to discourage the effort to combat underage drinking or to interfere with enforcing DWI laws.
"I've even heard from people who say they don't drink and want a crackdown on drunken driving but think that this is going too far," Geren said.