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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.

Comments

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Buddy
July 2nd, 2009 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

(@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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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

Richard W. Fitch
July 4th, 2009 | LINK

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 | LINK

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 | LINK

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….

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