03/23/2006

Texas cracking down on drunks in bars

By JIM VERTUNO
Associated Press Writer

AUSTIN, Texas- Get fall-down drunk in a Texas bar and it may cost more than a bruised backside. Try $500 or a few hours in jail.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is sending undercover officers into bars to look for the exceedingly drunk, issuing citations or making arrests for public intoxication even if the patrons haven't left the building.

"Drinking is fine," said agency spokeswoman Carolyn Beck. "But when people drink too much, they become dangerous to themselves and other people."

The program is aimed at reducing drunken driving. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Texas had 1,264 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2004, the most in the nation.

The crackdown is aimed not only at those who are drunk, but at the bars and bartenders who continue to serve them. So far, it has resulted in about 2,200 arrests or citations around the state.

B.J. Hassell, manager of victims services with MADD Texas State, which serves central Texas, said her organization supports the crackdown.

"Can you imagine if TABC had not stopped those people from leaving the bar, how many more drunk drivers we might have had on the road?" Hassell said.

The most recent sting was March 10, when agents infiltrated more than 30 bars in the Dallas suburb of Irving, arresting or citing dozens of people.

In Texas, the blood alcohol limit for drunken driving is .08 percent. But the law also defines public intoxication as "not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties" because of alcohol or other drugs.

Public intoxication is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. An offender can be cited or arrested. Many jails require that someone arrested be detained for at least four to 12 hours.

Bar patrons may be approached if an officer spots them behaving erratically, such as having difficulty walking or standing. The officer will perform a field sobriety test similar to one for drunken drivers. A patron may also be asked to take a breath test, although it is not required, Beck said.

Most people who take the breath test have a blood alcohol level of .17 or higher, she said. "These people who are being arrested are really drunk," she said. "We're not going up to random people."

And just having a designated driver isn't an excuse to get knee-wobbling drunk.

Beck cited a recent case in El Paso where a man staggered into traffic and was killed, and a student on spring break at South Padre Island who tried to jump into a hotel pool from a second-floor window. He missed and died.

Beck acknowledged many people may be surprised to learn they can be arrested for being drunk in a bar.

"We are trying to get the message out that we want bars to sell responsibly and consumers to consume responsibly," she said.

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