Texas Public Intoxication Law Is An Open Invitation For Abuse
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.”
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.