Texas Public Intoxication Law Is An Open Invitation For Abuse

Jim Burroway

July 2nd, 2009

Two Texas state legislators yesterday called for an independent investigation into the Rainbow Lounge raid by Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Ft. Worth police on Sunday morning. That raid resulted in Chad Gibson, 26, suffering a severe head injury while in TABC custody and landed him in Intensive Care. State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-FW) and state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-FW) met with TABC officials to discuss what happened.

Under Texas law, being intoxicated in public is a misdemeanor. Unlike in most states, it is against the law to be drunk, regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. You don’t have to be driving, fighting, or causing any other problems in order to be cited for Public Intoxication. And unlike drunk driving laws, Texas’ PI law doesn’t define what constitutes being drunk. This comes as a surprise to people who have been drinking but have a designated driver to take them home. Texas authorities have been taking full advantage of this ambiguous law, which is an open invitation for police abuse:

The TABC has been cracking down on public intoxication in bars and clubs because the law is on their side. According to the Texas penal code, public intoxication is when a person appears in a public place while intoxicated to the degree that the person may endanger the person or another. The law also says that a place licensed or permitted under the alcoholic beverage code is a public place.

So, what does ‘endanger’ mean?

Dallas defense attorney Toby Shook said the term is vague, at best. “You can arrest people on probable cause, but it’s very hard to prove that they are a danger to themselves or others,” said Shook.

Shook also believes that ‘public intoxications’ are sometimes issued to liberally. “If officers want to quell a situation, or if they get angry with people, they can be very quick to arrest them on PI,” he said.

TABC has been in trouble before over the open-ended nature of its PI enforcement. Their PI inspections program has been suspended twice since 2005 over eggregious abuse.

In April 2006 TABC announced that it was suspending its Sales to Intoxicated Persons (or SIPs) enforcement program, which sent undercover agents into bars. Originally intended to catch bartenders and servers who sold one (or two or three) too many drinks to clearly intoxicated patrons, SIPs operations instead ended up busting mostly drinkers. Between late 2005 and the spring of 2006, TABC issued more than 2,000 citations for public intoxication.

SIPs, which targeted bars based on DWI suspects\’ self-reported claims of where they\’d had their last drink before heading down the highway, was unpopular with taverns for obvious reasons. But it wasn\’t until an agent busted a woman drinking in an Irving hotel bar that the program blew up. Although TABC had touted SIPs as a public safety measure because it prevented DWIs, the woman had a room at the hotel that night — meaning she was headed nowhere.

The Irving sting made national news and TABC officials were hauled in front of legislators to explain the program. At the time Administrator Alan Steen emphasized his commitment to SIPs, however, today the program effectively has been shuttered permanently, said agency spokeswoman Carolyn Beck. While TABC occasionally conducts an isolated undercover investigation at a bar, she said, it is uncommon and targeted toward establishments with a clear record of proven infractions.

Clear record of proven infractions? Rainbow Lounge had only been open for less than a week. So far, neither Ft. Worth police nor TABC will answer questions about why the Rainbow Lounge was singled out for a raid on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion.

The whole process of conducting these so-called “inspections” is a complete mess. Earlier this month, a TABC agent was accused of sexual misconduct with a teenager who was assisting a sting operation by posing as an underage drinker. That supposedly resulted in a second suspension of the SIP program, despite the Rainbow Lounge’s raid just a few weeks later.

Not only is the law itself ill-defined, but the run rules for who has responsibility for what seems to be very unclear. For example, TABC has now acknowledged that Chad Gibson was injured while in their custody. Ft. Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead added to that, saying “They were not my employees.”

Cell phone image of police arresting Chad Gibson after throwing him on the floor. (Dallas Voice)

Cell phone image of police arresting Chad Gibson after throwing him on the floor. (Dallas Voice)

And yet a cell-phone photo appears to show a Ft. Worth police officer with at least two TABC agents while they had Gibson pinned to the ground outside the men’s room. Look closely. On the left/center of the photo, you can see two officers in tan uniforms. Those are TABC agents. Between those two is a third officer in a dark uniform, which appears to be a Ft. Worth police officer. The gloved hand of a fourth officer can be seen just to the right of the bar patron watching them, but it’s unclear whether that hand belongs to a TABC agent or a police officer.

Everything about this suggests a program out of control, with no accountability, no definitions of responsibilities, no criteria for choosing targets, and no clear determination of what constitutes a violation of the Public Intoxication law. The law itself leaves to much to the discretion of an officer’s mood, temperment and biases. This entire program is an open invitation to unchecked abuse by authorities for whatever reason and needs to be put to an immediate halt.

Buddy

July 2nd, 2009

The great thing about Ohio’s laws is you decide you are too drunk to drive and sleep it off in the car-BUSTED! If you walk home-BUSTED!

The lesson is don’t drink in public.

Brady

July 2nd, 2009

I live in TX, and I remember when TABC stepped up these raids for PI in 2005 and 2006. It was a complete mess…they were just waiting outside of bars arresting or ticketing anyone that might be drunk (if you could show them a DD or a cab, you just got a ticket, otherwise it was jail). Luckily in Houston they shut it down pretty quickly after the city started to question the effectiveness of these types of operations. I don’t remember any reports of anyone being tackled or injured in all those arrests, though.

Tom in Lazybrook

July 2nd, 2009

BREAKING NEWS! TABC Refuses to name officers involved in raid. How does the general public know that these officers have been placed on ‘desk duty’. What is their employment/disciplinary history? The reasons why names are released is to allow the general public and former employers to validate comment on these officers.

I guess we should just trust an appointee of homophobic bigot Rick Perry to get to the bottom of this.

Yea right.

Linda

July 2nd, 2009

It’s bad enough gay people have to look over their shoulders for hate bashers… but to receive it from police is a whole different picture.
I thought this kind of activity ended 40 years ago at stonewall.
These men should be striped of their police uniforms.

Rick

July 2nd, 2009

I was rejected for jury duty due to all my questions about the “public intoxication” case we had been called for here in Austin TX.

It seems the “public intoxication” law is applicable to any case where a person has had any amount of alcohol, is in any sort of public place, and a witness (who could be the arresting officer himself) sees him and concludes for any reason whatsoever that he may subsequently bring himself or another to harm. No blood alcohol test is necessary. No citizen complaint is necessary. No crime need have been committed… yet. It’s simply a crime here to be percieved as having the *opportunity* to commit a crime!

If a cop sees a man walk down the sidewalk, from an area with several bars, the officer may conclude, entirely at his own discretion, that the man is drunk and is going to get in his car and endanger children and fuzzy puppies during his drive home. I am totally serious. This is exactly what the defendant was accused of: being seen in public by a cop who had an imagination! This is taken completely seriously by TX courts!

paul j stein

July 2nd, 2009

SUE everyone involved including supervisors who looked the other way. Pensions,joint money, trust funds,freeze accounts, all of it from everyone.

Trevor

July 2nd, 2009

It may not be prudent to release the names of the officers that were reassigned to desk duty, at least at this time. I suspect given the nature of the accusation and the likely outcry from the public (already demonstrating), its better to keep the names of the officers under wraps. At least until formal charges are brought against them.

Michael

July 2nd, 2009

It would be interesting to find out if the patrons at the other bars these officers had “inspected” prior to the Rainbow Lounge were subjected to similar abuses. My guess is that since there have been no public allegations of police brutality or misconduct from those patrons(even though 9 arrests were made), then nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Or if abuses did occur, nobody’s talking, which doesn’t seem likely.

Just sayin’…

Lucas

July 2nd, 2009

I’m confused, what constitutes public intoxication? Since Rainbow Lounge patrons are inside the bar — inside private property — so technically, they can’t be considered public intoxication, right? And if it is considered public intoxication, can law enforcement then enter into people’s homes and arrest people on the grounds of public intoxication?

Richard W. Fitch

July 2nd, 2009

(@Lucas) The way the PI statues for Texas are written, any business that serves the general public is a PUBLIC place. The guidelines on PI are so vague that TABC agents can say “YOU are drunk” and you are. There is no need for breathalyzer or field sobriety testing. They have free rein to arrest you for asking a question, which constitutes resisting arrest or obstructing a LEO. This all sounds like agents of the SS and NOT public servants. You can get more first hand info at:
http://www.facebook.com/wall.php?id=109253439840&page=0&hash=abdc343ac879727a6fe32e3f14250f49#/group.php?gid=109253439840
This is a page setup specifically to deal with the issues precipitated by the events June 28 and following. The page also has contact info for those who wish to register complaints to the various agencies involved and to the offices of city and state govt.

cd

July 3rd, 2009

I’m still persuaded the basic m.o. is one of shakedown of drinking establishments.

But it does sound rather like Texas- a weird, counterproductive, official puritanism made law with pointless enforcement for lack of any more productive means of improving public life.

libhomo

July 4th, 2009

Texas is so corrupt, it isn’t even funny.

Richard W. Fitch

July 4th, 2009

The NY Times has now weighed in on the event with a very gay positive perspective:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/us/05texas.html?_r=6&sq=gay%20fort%20worth&st=cse&scp=2&pagewanted=print

Freelander

July 10th, 2009

I’ve been a TX peace officer for 10 years and with my department there is always talk about the P.I. laws. Every agency governs itself on who needs to go to jail; however, Texas law clearly states that Officers have the “freewill” for lack of better word to decide when to arrest. I have arrested several people for P.I. and still will. We have a policy that states that we conduct the S.F.S.T.’s just like we would for a DWI charge so there would be no question as to the impairment of the indivisual. Once again every agency sets it’s own guidlines for this.

Alejo Villa

January 4th, 2010

This is almost incredible to believe, I was intoxicated, and my friends left me, I ask a police man help to find a taxi car or a hotel cheap by and they arrest me right away and took me to jail, when actually I just needed help…
Now I have to go to court and pay a fine….

Tommy R

April 3rd, 2015

In January 2015 I was in Spring Valley TX, napping in my truck, while waiting for my girlfriend. Now keep in mind I had not been drinking. A officer woke me up, arrested me, towed my truck, confiscated two of my loaded pistols, and put me in a cell for 9 hours without food or water because I declined to answer his questions. Now I have to spend thousands to fight it.

Joshua Everett

March 25th, 2016

I live I’m Texas, have my whole life. I am a 15 year military police veteran or the Marine corps and the Army. I was a federal law enforcement officer for 5 years while in the reserves and I worked for a local sheriff’s office for a number of years. PI is a useful tool to cops when they are walking down the highway and stavving in trafdic intoxicated, saves lives..The cops that use it are not helping and there are so many clear cut entrapment violations dumb was jury’s now days forget this person is innocent the burden of proof is on the police and DAs to prove guilt not the other way around. The more cops abuse it the not power of discretion they lose in the legislation when laes are passed. When I returned home from iraq to montgonery county, I was no longer working for their sheriff’s office and was going through a divorce and some personally struggles. I would stay home have a beer or ten and never bother a soul. Nevrr had a cop over on a conplaint never cuased any trouble never any a roll by. Never had a ticket or criminal incident ever. In fact I enforced laws for years. I got into a verbal back and forth with my now ex wife nothing physical no threats. Just told her it was over I was done and she wanted to work it out and blah blah. She wanted me to leave my house, so refused she called the police, stating I only I was drunk and needed to leave we were in a aurguement. They asked me to leave the scene to allow things to cool off at midnight. I did but had work the next day at 6 so at 5 I came home to shower and get dressed to work. As you guess it she called the cops again I never even spoke to her, didn’t even know she was awake. She heard my truck called the then back saying I was told to leave and came home. Well I got out of the shower dressed for work and my cell rings a deputy tells me he is outside can I come see him for a brief min. I said yes walked out my front door and down my drive way. He instantly put cuffs on me and I took a ride to jail for PI. Not one sentence spoke other than turn around hands behind your back, I told you don’t come back here. I use to work with this guy there always had been a personal issue with me and him. Well before court I had received deployment orders to go back overseas the justice of the punk court wouldn’t help me out with a Court date this century… so I just signed the guilt here you go peace out at the DAs offixe, Plead guilty no fine no big deal. Well after years of not ever being able to get a job back in law enforement and it being used against me in many ways. Like child custody bla blah, I feel foolish for pleading to something that was a clear cut, entrapment case. Never fighting it because of no time prior to leaving. I got the police report where he admitted to calling me in the phone and telling me to come outside that earlier deputies came over and said I was drinking, never once did he say I was drunk or a danger or that any allegations wrre ever made about abuse or anything. I contacted the district attoneys and it is now 7 years later pushing for this thing to be taken off my record. My onlt gope is a pardon from the governor. Never had a problem one prior to this, never had a ticket or arrest ever after, now this is the only black mark on my record. If you are a cop and you use this loop hole in the law you are a fool. You are 1, ruining officer descretion for the cops that actually use it. You are a coward scared to face to streets without hiding behind some catch all law. I have never drink since that day. Not because I had a problem because I saw the truth that days they can do whatever they want When ever they want and the DA and courtsand dumb was jury they will all just assume the cop is right. If you have never been on the other side of law enforement ever you don’t know what I mean.. If you have you know this is bull shit 2, you need to be charged with a crime yourself little things like this can ruin people’s lives. Just my 2 cents. i will not stop till this 1 blimish is off my record i will write letters to everyone who can pardon ever and send the report and my statement it

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