Put Down That Beer and Step Away From the Bar

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When state and local governments started banning smoking in bars, the joke was that drinking would be next. It's still a joke, but that doesn't mean it's not happening. Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, are going undercover to nab people for the crime of being drunk in a tavern (considered a "public place"). Soon they'll be raiding local gyms, hauling away anyone caught sweating.

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  1. Just to be clear, I am not defending the crimalization of the mere fact of being intoxicated at a bar. However, it is ridiculous to deny that outside of pedestrian venues such as Manhattan, the vast majority of people who patronize bars drive there and back. The primary, if not sole purpose of going to a bar is to consume an intoxicating substance which is well-documented to render driving dangerous to others past a certain level of intake.

    The roads and highways are — for good or ill — owned in common, and the collective has every right to set reasonable rules for the conditions of their use. Among those reaonable rules is that one should not be permitted to use the community’s roads in a state of impairment that makes doing so more dangerous to others. It is criminal (properly so) to put oneself in a condition that greatly increases the risks to the lives, limbs and property of others. If this were not so — if one had to actually kill or maim before culpability attached — then attempted murder or mere conspiracy would not be crimes, since the act was not successful.

    The state properly restrains people from attempting to kill unconsenting others, or from greatly increasing the risk that they will.
    That any particular individual has not maimed or killed someone while driving drunk merely makes them and others lucky. I know two people who were not so fortunate, both of whom spent several years behind bars for killing innocent human beings while driving with a high BAC. (One was a lawyer who was disbarred as a direct consequence of taking the life of a 19-yr old after driving away drunk from a bar.)

    Yes, puritanism regarding alcohol is alive and well in the U.S., and I think a BAC of .08 should not qualify as drunk driving. But alcohol addicts drink at bars in numbers and frequency disproportionate to the general population; it is very common for them drive away from their watering holes intoxicated to a degree that is, by any reasonable standard, unsafe for others. That is a crime, and should be. Why so many are having fits of outrage over ambient smoke while drunks are driving to and leaving their cars parked and waiting for them at bars, is a Menckenesque puzzlement.

  2. Mona,

    I agree with your reasoning to the extent that it should be illegal to drive drunk on roadways. However arresting people or prohibiting drunkeness in bars is one step short of the proper causality mark. Many bars have offered ‘ride home’ services for people who have had too much to drink. They will also call a cab for you as well. For those able to plan ahead, there are designated drivers. If a group of people go out and one or more folks who are not drinking are responsible for the driving, it is not the state’s business how drunk the others get. It may be (and often is) in the bar’s best interest to cut off or exclude excessive drinkers on the grounds that they often exhibit behavior that makes the other patron’s experience there less desirable.

    There are many people who imbibe at bars without driving themselves home afterwards; it is a presumption of guilt that they necessarily will drive drunk because they are getting drunk there. The police often do watch bar parking lots to see if people are stumbling to their cars or showing other signs of drunkeness and then driving. This is perfectly acceptable, to the extent that they are not trespassing. Since most bars are on public streets there is no constitutional requirement for warrants or such to observe this behavior.

  3. Jim, it doesn’t seem that we disagree. I completely concur that it should be legal to drink oneself into a stupor at a bar. However, when bar owners also provide parking, they are inviting people to drive there and back. And everybody knows those lots are not filled with designated drivers.

    Yes, many bars will call cabs and direct toward buses, and while some patrons do go out to the taverns with designated drivers or having made prior arrangements for transportation, these have proven to be wholly inadequate to meeting the problem of drunk drivers getting blitzed at bars. Absolutely, I do not think anyone should be arrested merely for being drunk at a bar. But, should it be legal to open an establishment with a parking lot when the sole or primary purpose is to sell a mood-altering substance which is well-known to seriously impair driving, unless some mechanisms are in place to ensure that no one who drinks in excess of 2-3 drinks in several hours gets back in their car? I mean mandatory mechanisms.

    Let’s say the phenomenon of the tavern was unheard of, and suddenly some entrepreneurs announced they were going to open up an establishment with a huge parking lot, at which they intended to do nothing but sell a substance that was widely know to be taken in excess by a substantial number of its users, and which impairs driving and consequently results in maiming and death for tens of thousands. And let’s say they also intended to let their patrons smoke nicotine cigarettes. Which would be the more sensible public outcry: that selling the substance to people parked at the establishment was idiocy, or that the employees of the place were at risk from second hand smoke?

    My point is that prohibiting smoking in bars is not only an unjust use of state power, but also a manifestation of demented priorities, given the real and far more pervasive problem of alcohol addicts on wheels who patronize bars, and who park there while getting loaded. Rather than sermonizing about the bar owner’s responsibility to his or her employees who are free to consent or not to working there, I’m much more interested in what these owners intend to do about the sizeable number of their customers who seldom, if ever, stop at one or two, and who then, as one poster here has claimed, drive home drunk hundreds of times.

  4. In scams such as this, it is wise to follow the money.
    In some states, Texas for one, the lion’s share of fines collected for DUI go to the state. But most of the fine for a PI infraction stays at the city level. Therefore it makes a lot of sense for city cops to go to bars hunting for folks under the influence.

  5. Brad, close, but not quite the right movie. Perhaps a better example would the “Demolition Man”. (say what you will about Stallone’s acting, but the society protrayed in that movie is getting closer to reality in a lot of ways)

    “Anything not good for you is bad for you, and hence illegal.”

  6. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that, at some point in time, our government is simply going to make fun of any kind illegal. I’m reminded of Dean Wormer’s line from “Animal House”…

  7. I just brings The Revolution a little closer.

  8. Actually, this makes more sense to me than the anti-smoking campaign, simply because most people who stop at a bar to imbibe drive there, and then drive home (or to wherever). The mere fact of being intoxicated in a so-called public place like a tavern should not, of course, constitute a crime, but is it not somewhat insane to be permitting people to drive to and from establishments whose raison d’etre is the serving of a substance which often renders driving dangerous, while at the same time having a collective hissy fit over the ostensible harm of cigarette smoke vis-a-vis the consenting bar staff?

    Ambient smoke carries low risk to which property owners, patrons and employees can and do consent. The state has no proper interest in interfering in such choices. But it does properly protect us all from people who impair their ability to operate a 3,000 lb piece of dangerous machinery on the common property that many traverse when leaving a tavern.

  9. In response to Mona:

    The only thing at issue is whether or not an individual is driving while impaired. Arresting the individual because he “may” drive while impaired smacks of “Minority Report”. “Prior Restraint”? Is that the Constitutional term?

  10. What is your definition of low-risk? I’ve driven drunk hundreds of times and have NEVER caused any property damage. Seems to me if I’m going to be arrested for causing people harm, I should actually have harmed someone first.

    One of the problems with drunk driving really has to do with Puritanical attitudes regarding alcohol. Many people drive drunk because there are no bars within walking distance of their homes. Dry towns, dry counties, along with the significant reduction in issuance of alcohol dispensing licenses only forces people to have to drive to imbibe socially.

    If the police have nothing better to do than to go to bars to see if people are drunk (DUH!) then there are obviously more police than necessary.

  11. Mona,

    I think perhaps where we disagree, is the assessment of the percentage of the bar’s clientele that drink past the point of unsafe driving. Drunk driving deaths have fallen significantly in this country in recent years, yet bars with parking lots remain in business. Clearly people are behaving more responsibly. And my personal experience is that not so many people are getting really blizted in bars as you might imagine.

    Of course, there are many bars that probably knowingly let patrons drink to oblivion that they know will drive home. Most bars I think are concerned about this, however. A waitress told me one time that the reason they cut off visibly intoxicated patrons is fear of law suits stemming from ‘overserving’ guests that subsequently get into accidents. I’m not saying I think the bars should be held responsible for people’s individual bad decisions, but the de facto case in this country is that they are sometimes held accountable and thus act accordingly.

  12. Surely the old rule about bar staff being able to refuse a client a drink because they were getting drunk was all that was needed. If the rights of property owners are respected, no such invasions by the police are necessary. Bars and other public places which are privately owned should set their own rules, either draconian or libertarian. End of story.

    Obviously the police in that state have not much better to do.

    We used to laugh at this sort of puritan nonsense in the U.S., but over here in Britain, we usually follow the worst forms of American puritanism sooner or later. Oh dear.

  13. Mona, have you given any thought to the fact that when you drive on the road, with or without drunk, intoxicated, buzzed or buzzed but recovered drivers, you and your collective already run a risk? That in order to reduce or eliminate all such risks, you’d have to first take away all fun and then all social activities? That doing so does in fact carry a much bigger cost in lost liberty and lost quality of life than the potential lives you may claim to save by attempting to mitigate some of these risks in the first place?

  14. There’s a good analysis of all this and all the laws on this blog here. It says the raids may be unconstitutional since the intoxication law is so vague.

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