|By Pete Slover and Eric Aasen, The Dallas
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 24, 2006 - All Burton Byers wanted was a burger and a beer -- or six -- at his Irving hotel.
In return, he traded his seat at the bar for a spot in jail -- and unemployment.
Mr. Byers and others are still fuming two weeks after being accused of public intoxication by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, part of stepped-up enforcement efforts statewide in establishments that serve liquor. The campaign, which also involves local police, brought agents to Irving on the weekend of March 10-12.
"I could not believe [it]," Mr. Byers said, recounting that nobody in the bar was fighting or causing problems. "I've been in a lot of states, and you go in a bar to do one thing, and that's to drink alcohol."
Commission officials are defending the actions, noting that being drunk in public is against the law and that any place licensed to serve booze is, by law, a public place -- including restaurants in dry areas that sell so-called private memberships to let patrons drink.
The agency's focus, a spokeswoman said, is to rein in people whose alcohol use could make them a danger to themselves or others -- especially by driving drunk.
In the six months ending in February, the agency issued 2,281 criminal citations, nearly double the amount of the same period the previous year.
Some drinkers, though, say the state is going too far in targeting bar patrons who may have no intention of driving anywhere -- Mr. Byers, for instance, said he was merely going to retire to his room in the same hotel. And some fear that having officers quietly monitor drinkers and make judgment calls about whether they pose a threat could lead to Big Brother-type abuses.
Mr. Byers, 41, said he was relaxing at the Circle Spur Saloon at the Clarion Hotel where he was staying, near the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, when officers approached him. Apparently, undercover alcohol commission agents had identified him as drunk, either by his behavior or by the number of beers he said he had consumed -- key indicators of intoxication, according to the agency. Mr. Byers said he had no more than six beers.
Mr. Byers, a resident of Rogers, Ark., who is the director of maintenance for an aircraft charter company, was taken outside, handcuffed and sent to the Irving jail, where he posted $360 bond and was released. He had traveled to Dallas to help repair a plane and lost his job afterward, in part because of the arrest, he said.
Happy, or drunk?
A Clarion official declined to comment, but a bartender at another location targeted that night said he and his managers share customers' concerns.
"They feel like its violating their rights. How can you give somebody a public intox? That's what you go to a bar for," said Todd Williams, 27, a supervisor at Boston's Restaurant and Sports Bar on Market Place Boulevard in Irving.
Agents might easily mistake the rowdy atmosphere of a sports bar for drunkenness, Mr. Williams said.
"People are just laughing and having a good time," he said, describing the case of an off-duty restaurant employee who was arrested. "He's just kind of a loud and friendly guy. They might have taken him for being drunk."
Carolyn Beck, the alcohol commission's public information officer, said that officers take steps to confirm drunkenness, such as moving the patrons to a quiet location to observe them.
The legal requirements are different for proving public intoxication than for proving a person is driving under the influence, she said. The standard is not whether a person has a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent; it's whether the person poses a threat to themselves or others.
So no blood alcohol or breathalyzer tests are required, and convictions -- usually class C misdemeanors, with fines but no jail time often depend on officers' observation of certain symptoms: slurred speech, staggering or loss of balance, bloodshot eyes.
And as with drunken driving, Ms. Beck said, police don't have to wait for a person to harm somebody or themselves to make an arrest.
"Lots of people drive under the influence every day and get home without hurting anybody," she said. "It's the likelihood that you'll hurt somebody if you're driving drunk: that's why they made it illegal."
Mike Lessard, 45, was arrested at Texas Bar & Grill on Las Colinas Boulevard and also spent the night in jail.
He said he was having a pleasant evening, downing a few beers after work, when a plainclothes officer summoned him outside to be arrested.
"I had no idea that some guy could just tap me on the shoulder and say they'd like to see us outside," the Irving resident said. "I was thrown by the whole thing. I didn't know they had any right to do that."
Mr. Lessard said he wasn't sure how much he had been drinking but said he wasn't noticeably impaired and felt in control. He said that if had been drinking too much, he would have found a ride home.
In a memo sent to the city officials this week, Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd said that he had fielded "a number of unverified complaints regarding the reasonableness of some arrests made during this operation."
"In general, I believe it serves the best interest of our citizens to ensure that the premises licensed to sell alcohol in Irving are conducting themselves within the parameters of the law," he wrote to Assistant City Manager Gilbert Perales. He called Irving police's participation "consistent with this objective."
Still, Chief Boyd said, he planned to meet with alcoholic beverage commission officials to discuss concerns about the operation.
In 2003, a similar effort in Virginia was halted after an outcry from officials and the public. Ms. Beck, the Texas commission spokeswoman, said that the department is confident that the arrests are legitimate and that lawmakers approve of the program.
"We've had a lot of contact over at the Legislature, and they gave us additional personnel for this effort," she said.
Pete Slover reported from Austin; Eric Aasen reported from Irving.
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