- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

DALLAS — Undercover police are hanging out in North Texas bars and hauling off those they deem inebriated. No breath test required, just an officer’s observations.

The effort, under way for several months and generating strong public opposition, is led by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

“Going to a bar is not an opportunity to go get drunk,” said TABC Capt. David Alexander, who heads the task force. “It’s to have a good time, but not to get drunk.”

Under Operation Last Call, Capt. Alexander’s force, which includes some city police, has hauled in about 2,200 people, including bartenders who continue to serve patrons who are drunk. Those cited are either fined, up to $500 for public intoxication, or detained for at least 12 hours.

Officials say the effort is designed to combat Texas’ drunken-driving rate, the highest in the nation. Opponents call it as an invasion of privacy and an infringement of civil rights.

“My grandparents went through this kind of repression in Germany a long time ago. I never thought it would happen here,” said Gunther Thede, a 24-year-old student.

“What about a person who is in a group with a designated driver? Or a person who is just having a few before going upstairs to his hotel room?”

Several bar owners and employees predict the TABC crackdown will hamper business.

“Why would you go somewhere where you could be sitting in a bar, not bothering anybody, not causing any trouble, and you can go to jail for sitting there and having six beers?” bar owner Bob Allen wondered.

Another bar owner, who requested anonymity, said some proprietors are not speaking out against the campaign because they fear retribution from the TABC, which issues liquor licenses.

“Do you think I want a half-dozen of these baboons camped on my doorstep?” said Ron, who operates a well-known bistro in Dallas’ West End. “They can close me down in a New York minute or hurt my trade so much I would have wished I had closed it down.”

The TABC and local press have been inundated with complaints, but the agency vows to continue its campaign.

“Drinking is fine,” said agency spokeswoman Carolyn Beck. “But when people drink too much, they become dangerous to themselves and other people.”

She said suspects are given field sobriety tests similar to those for drunken-driving suspects, and that a patron also may be asked to take a breath test, although it is not required.

Most people who take the breath test have a blood alcohol level of 0.17 percent or higher, more than double the state’s 0.08 percent limit.

Supporters of the campaign say it is necessary to drive down alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Mothers Against Drunk Driving reported that Texas had 1,264 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2004, the most in the nation.

“I don’t care how they get these people off the highways,” said Mary Tinsley, a patron at one Deep Ellum bar in Dallas. “I’m just glad they are out there.”

Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland called the enforcement “wildly selective.”

“Agents are on the lookout for bar patrons with loud or slurred speech, exaggerated movements or unsteady balance,” said Mr. Ragland, and those who are “argumentative.”

“If that’s the case,” Mr. Ragland said, “I’ve been in places where my whole party could have been hauled downtown, including some of us who were drinking sodas. Bars aren’t libraries.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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