Five months ago, on the night of Cinco de Mayo, 56-year-old Daniel Gomez stumbled into Owl’s Liquors. State law forbids the sale of alcohol to visibly intoxicated people, and—according to an investigation report by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s Special Investigations Division—Gomez was drunk.
Owl’s refused to sell Gomez the liquor he wanted—but Gomez wasn’t giving up. After yelling at an observer in the parking lot, he and 54-year-old Henry Tapia staggered north to a competing establishment: the House of Booze, a liquor store housed in an unmarked, decrepit building on Agua Fria Street.
According to the SID report, Gomez “walked with difficulty as he took deliberate steps to balance” as he and Tapia approached the counter.
The store’s clerk, José Alemán, sold Gomez a six-pack of Budweiser, a pint of Jim Beam and a mini of Yukon Jack whiskey. Tapia bought a six-pack of Camo Black Extra, a 12.2 percent alcohol by volume beer. According to the SID report, Tapia then gave the Camo Black to another intoxicated person, 49-year-old Anthony Anaya, to whom Alemán had refused to sell.
When Gomez walked out of the House of Booze, three SID agents were waiting for him. After they assured him that he “wasn’t in any trouble,” Gomez underwent field sobriety tests.
“A, B, C, L, M, N, O,” he slurred when asked to recite the alphabet. After Gomez failed a counting test, SID Agent Sgt. Jerry Belyeu asked if he knew how to count.
“I thought I did,” Gomez replied. He blew a .275, well above the legal driving limit.
According to the report, he gave agents “false information” about his birthday and Social Security number. But the officers were able to get the correct information, which revealed that Gomez had an outstanding DWI felony warrant. The SID agents arrested him.
They also issued two citations against the House of Booze, potentially costing the store thousands of dollars—including any lost money for temporarily shutting down—for providing alcohol to intoxicated people. They issued Alemán two citations for selling alcohol to Gomez and two more for selling to Tapia, who was sober but gave the booze to an intoxicated Anaya. (Alemán contests SID’s versions of the events, saying he wasn’t aware that Gomez was drunk or that Tapia planned to give alcohol to Anaya.)
“Didn’t you see he was drunk?! A 27, brother, you can’t smell him? You can’t hear him—the way he’s talking?” Belyeu admonished Alemán while writing up the citations. Alemán said Gomez wasn’t talking.
“How come you’re not talking to him? Don’t they teach you that type of stuff?!...The other guy, he walks out, and I saw it right there,” Belyeu scolded. “You saw it exchanged at your store!”
The Cinco de Mayo incident is evidence of SID’s power, especially when it comes to small liquor establishments. The division uses its $1.5 million budget and employs 18 commissioned officers and five civilians to enforce the state’s Liquor Control Act and Concealed Handgun Carry Act.
SID represents the front line of New Mexico’s war against drunk driving, and its penalties are harsh enough to inspire trepidation at some local establishments.
Fines range from $1,000 for first-time offenses to $10,000 for a third offense in one year. Establishments are also forced to close for one day for a first offense, and up to a week for a second offense in a year. Three strikes in a year? Possibly say goodbye to your liquor license.
House of Booze owner Matt Chavez declined to comment for this story, so it’s unclear what sort of punishment might be levied against his store—which was fined earlier in the year—or whether the citations will be disputed at a hearing.
“New Mexico’s DWI problem, traffic fatalities and over-serving often start in licensed liquor establishments,” DPS spokesman Tony Lynn explains in an email to SFR. “SID partners with licensees to provide training for them to better comply with the liquor laws. There are over 3,000 licensed liquor establishments in New Mexico. So with so many licensees and the high number of DWI it is important for the SID to continually monitor the state’s liquor laws to make sure everyone is obeying the rules and making New Mexico a safer state.”
SID isn’t the only arm of the law watching liquor establishments. It sometimes coordinates with local agencies on investigations. Aric Wheeler, former Santa Fe Police Department chief and captain of its investigations division, has overseen joint SFPD-SID investigations of liquor establishments. Wheeler’s own son, before he went to college in August, worked one of those investigations, a sting operation in which he played the part of a minor attempting to purchase liquor. “He was pretty much in shock,” Wheeler says, by the underbelly of Santa Fe’s liquor establishments.
The Alcohol and Gaming Division of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department collects fines from SID investigations and holds administrative hearings if those fines are contested. In the last year, the department has collected $7,500 in fines from establishments in Santa Fe County that allegedly provided alcohol to intoxicated persons. The establishments range from liquor stores to gas stations and bars. Each of them agreed to pay without admitting to the allegations.
Santa Fe City Councilor Patti Bushee says state enforcement of the liquor laws preempts the city “on a lot of fronts,” but that she would like to see what’s going on in Gallup: a local tax on alcohol that would go toward treatment programs for the “addiction problems,” of some of the people who frequent Owl’s, House of Booze and a liquor store in the nearby Walgreens. But the state liquor lobby is a powerful force in the Roundhouse, she notes, and she’s looking at tinkering with the city’s land use code to constrict sales of miniatures often purchased by homeless people because they’re cheap.
“There’s a certain population—sometimes they’re homeless and sometimes they’re not—and we would like to try to limit the access to that alcohol,” she says. “It’s been difficult for me because I like people to have freedom of choice.”
Since the Cinco de Mayo incident, the House of Booze has made some changes, including discontinuing the sale of some of its cheaper products. Alemán often turns down customers he suspects are intoxicated.
Those on the other end of the investigations—sometimes owners, but often part-time clerks like Alemán—argue that SID agents show little mercy in their enforcement practices. Especially frustrating, vendors say, are the citations for selling to intoxicated persons, who sometimes do not show signs of their inebriation, and citations for selling to sober customers who provide booze to intoxicated people.
Owl’s and the House of Booze are near the Railyard area, which, Wheeler recalls, for years attracted homeless people, some of whom had addiction problems. On any given night, there’s a chance you’ll see somebody begging for change in a liquor store parking lot or requesting customers to purchase booze for them.
Wan Son, owner of Owl’s Liquors (which has been fined by SID in the past), says he sometimes “begs them to leave,” but—beyond calling the police, which he says he’s done—there’s not much more he can do to kick them off his parking lot.
Son says he agrees with the intent of New Mexico’s liquor laws, but questions the punitive way in which they’re enforced. He argues that more should be done to tackle the homelessness of some of the customers who cause problems at his establishment.
“Education is more important than no tolerance,” he says.