Did a public intoxication raid go too far?
10:34 PM CDT on Wednesday, April 5, 2006
By BYRON HARRIS / WFAA-TV
Byron Harris reports
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The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission was accused of being heavy handed during Dallas raids last month, but charges of over-reaching don't begin there.
An operation at Cedar Creek Lake last summer still has some people fuming. They said TABC officers threw people in jail based simply on their opinion. Some also said the TABC broke its own rules in the process.
The incident occurred on a Friday night last July in the small town of Seven Points when TABC agents, fire marshals and local police cracked a mellow mood with a public intoxication raid at Rita's Club, Walker's Landing, the First and Last and Cedar Isle.
Over several hours, in a sweep of nearly every bar and private club in Gun Barrel City and Seven Points, TABC officers and local police arrested 25 people.
"It was something like you would see on 'Cops,'" said club owner Nita Walker. "It was like they had committed several murders in the bar. It was like a TAC force busting through."
The sting had two parts. The TABC often sends an undercover officer into a bar 15 minutes to an hour before enforcement officers arrive. The undercover officer observes the patrons for signs of intoxication like red eyes, slurred speech and declining motor skills. Whether a person is or is not intoxicated is based on the officer's judgment.
Although TABC officers receive some classroom training on how to recognize public intoxication at headquarters in Austin, the agency has no training film on the subject.
"In the 20 years that I've been in law enforcement, public intoxication has been subjective," said Sonja Pendergast. "It has been up to the officer."
Many felt the July raid was too aggressive and unjust.
"To come in and take somebody outright because they had two beers [or] three beers, I feel like that's an injustice," Eldon Campbell said.
But precisely what happened at Cedar Creek is in dispute.
Some of those charged said the TABC officer who arrested them had no visible badge and did not identify himself, but he said he did.
Some of those arrested said they were not given a field sobriety test of motor skills, while officers said tests were administered.
Those arrested also said they were not given a breathalyzer exam; Officers said a breathalyzer was offered, but was refused.
But it turns out, blood alcohol level is irrelevant in public intoxication cases, because public intoxication is based solely on the judgment of the officer.
While motor vehicle officers routinely videotape DWI arrests, TABC officers do not, and many don't even have cameras.
Public intoxication is a Class C misdemeanor, which is a crime too small for most district attorneys to prosecute.
In 2004, TABC made 2,055 public intoxication arrests and charged 113 bartenders for overserving patrons.
The agency does not have complete statistics for 2005 because it said it lost the numbers.
Last year, the TABC received a budget increase. It hired 60 new officers and increased its enforcement of public intoxication.
TABC officers said most of the people they arrest are so intoxicated there is little doubt they're endangering themselves. The officers said they are saving lives.
Cedar Creek bar owners said business is down 25 percent since last year because customers are afraid to come in.