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Sobering Times

January 3, 2007, 12:00 am
Bartenders chafe against new rules.

It's customary during the holiday season for revelers to let their cups runneth over.

This year? Not so much.

Just ask Will Adams, co-owner of WilLee's Blues Club on Guadalupe Street. Adams says his establishment was the target of a police operation in December designed to crack down on drunk driving and conducted by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety's Special Investigations Division (SID).

According to Adams, SID agents videotaped patrons of WilLee's from outside the bar before singling out a customer to submit to a breathalyzer test and threatening him with arrest unless he complied. When the customer blew a .17, the bartender who served him was issued a citation, as was the bar, Adams says. (Alcohol and Gaming uses .14 as the benchmark to determine intoxication; .08 is the legal limit for driving.)

"Bartenders aren't pouring the liquor down people's throats," Adams, who is filing a complaint with SID over the incident, says. "It's kind of ridiculous because there's no ***image1***criminal intent or maliciousness in the bartender's mind. It's the guy who gets hammered and gets into his car and drives that is breaking the law."

Adams says his lawyer maintains that SID doesn't have a case because the customer claims he did not want to submit to the breathalyzer test.
SID has targeted bars before as a means of curbing drunk driving; it's illegal in New Mexico for an establishment to knowingly serve intoxicated individuals alcohol. But with the renewed outcry over drunk driving-the result of a gruesome Nov. 11 crash that killed five members of a Las Vegas, NM, family-SID's aggressive approach is garnering more attention.

In that accident, drunk driver Dana Papst, already intoxicated from swilling whiskey on a flight to Albuquerque, purchased more alcohol at a convenience store in Bernalillo. Papst eventually swerved his vehicle the wrong way into oncoming traffic near Santa Fe and plowed into a minivan, killing five of the six family members on board.

On Dec. 23, SID cited the convenience store that sold Papst the additional alcohol, and law enforcement view the accident as an example of how important it is to prohibit establishments from serving drunken customers. That edict is particularly salient as it pertains to bars, SID Deputy Director Jim Plagens says-hence the state's policy of holding bartenders responsible for their customers' alcohol intake. According to Plagens, the scenario goes a little something like this:

SID agents stake out a popular bar in the City Different. The agents then hone in on a patron who appears intoxicated and ask the patron to take a breathalyzer test. If the patron agrees and blows a .14 or higher, the bartender who served that customer can receive a misdemeanor citation, as can the establishment.

New regulations, enacted in October, add teeth to existing Alcohol and Gaming policies by beefing up the penalties to establishments that serve drunken customers. Now, if a bar or store incurs three citations within a 12-month period, it can receive a $10,000 fine and a possible revocation of its liquor license. The regulations also apply to the serving of minors. The previous benchmark when an establishment might incur a license revocation was five violations.

"We've definitely stepped it up. We have more SID agents doing more operations," Gary Tomada, director of the state's Alcohol and Gaming Division, says.

According to Alcohol and Gaming's Citations Manager Debra Lopez, Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, Guadalajara Grill, Fox's Upstairs Bar and Grill and Applebee's all have been cited within the last five months for serving alcohol to minors.

For SID's Plagens, who notes that approximately 100 citations are handed out each year to bartenders in New Mexico, the onus needs to stay on the servers.

"It's not illegal to be drunk, but servers are supposed to recognize people who are intoxicated. That's part of their training," he says (servers are required by state law to attend an alcohol server training class within 30 days of employment).

While he did not speak specifically to the WilLee's case, Plagens denies Adams' assertion that his agents forced the customer to submit to the breathalyzer.

"Our agents know better than that. We can't arrest people for not doing a breath test," he says.

Regardless of the specifics, some local bartenders say the increased pressure to constantly monitor their customers' alcohol absorption is both unreasonable and misguided.

Heather McKearnan, who works at the Cowgirl BBQ and Western Grill, also on Guadalupe Street, has tended bar for 11 years. She says that even the most seasoned bartenders can have trouble identifying whether a customer is legally drunk and that it's unfair to turn bartenders into baby sitters.

"Most of the bartenders I know are very responsible. We do everything in our power to keep people who've had too much to drink from getting into their cars," McKearnan says. "But now, it's almost like we're being accused of wanting to get people drunk. That's the implication. So where is the personal responsibility? It seems like we're taking it out of the hands of the people who are actually doing the drinking and driving."


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