Last week, after a less-than-stellar record of adhering to state liquor laws, Agua Fria Street’s somewhat infamous House of Booze liquor store was shut down. A press release announcing the state’s decision mentioned the store’s three violations in the past year: one for selling alcohol to a minor, and two for selling to intoxicated people [news, Oct. 2, 2012: “Booze Cruisers”]. The owner, Matt Chavez, agreed to pay $10,000 and sell the store’s liquor license.
In a town where liquor licenses are both pricey and hard to come by, that might have sounded like the perfect opportunity to open that Railyard skee-ball bar we’ve all been dreaming about. But it also illustrated the high-stakes game of serving alcohol in New Mexico, whose laws place much of the responsibility on servers and salespeople.
“I think you have to have a balanced system of laws that hold people accountable,” says Shannon Murphy, the founder of the After Hours Alliance, which aims to promote nightlife in Santa Fe. “Not just in the service industry—but also the general public.”
Data from the Alcohol and Gaming Division of the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department show it’s not uncommon for a local liquor-selling establishment to be fined for violating the Liquor Control Act.
Take Cowgirl BBQ, which was fined $10,000 and had to close for four days this past fall after two women left the establishment and crashed into an ambulance on I-25 in 2010. In recent years, the Matador, Applebee’s, Allsups and Giant gas stations have all paid lower-cost fines; last year, the state also shut down Fairview Liquor Store and Bar in Española, for serving to minors and selling package liquor after hours, and fined it $11,000.
It’s not that local venues are necessarily trying to get people drunk, though.
“You can’t always judge a person’s state of intoxication,” notes Zane Fischer, a coordinator at MIX Santa Fe.
Murphy says investing more money in DWI prosecution might be a way around liquor-licensing rules. But for now, she doesn’t see the system of holding servers responsible changing.
“I can’t imagine anyone having the political will to go argue that it should be easier to serve people alcohol,” she says.