Authorities fighting DWIs struggle to stop over-serving of alcohol

Authorities fighting DWIs struggle to stop over-serving of alcohol

Under Texas State law bar owners, restaurants, liquor stores, and others can be held liable for auto accidents and deaths that result from their illegal sale of alcohol. Commonly referred to as "dram shop laws," those who knowingly or negligently serve alcohol to intoxicated or under age persons can be held liable for accidents they cause as a result. At The León Law Firm, we investigate the actions of bars, restaurants, and places where alcohol is served in order to determine if they acted negligently. We look at credit card charges and bar tabs to determine how much alcohol was served and when, interview eyewitnesses, staff personal, and review video footage when it is available. We understand what to look for and how to investigate alcohol-related accidents and fatalities.

---Leon Law Firm

Authorities fighting DWIs struggle to stop over-serving of alcohol

By James Pinkerton

Houston Chronicle

The astonishing level of intoxication of a pair of motorists who caused five deaths in a recent two-day span by driving the wrong way on Interstate 45 in Montgomery County shocked even the most seasoned observers in a region where DWI-related deaths are sadly commonplace.

One of those drivers - a man who had been drinking at a bar near The Woodlands - is suspected of downing a whopping 22 beers July 1.

The other driver, a woman, allegedly consumed at least 20 alcoholic beverages in the same area before a fatal accident early June 29.

Prosecutors, plaintiffs' attorneys and lawmakers say over-serving by bar and restaurant staff is a serious problem in Texas that is sometimes overshadowed by anti-DWI enforcement and drunken-driving awareness programs. They say the state's alcohol regulatory agency - hit by staff reductions - also has brought fewer criminal and administrative sanctions against servers.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission enforcement records shows that criminal prosecutions against establishments or their employees are rare.

For example, in Montgomery County only eight criminal cases have been filed since 2007. In Harris County, with a much greater population, TABC has filed 13 criminal cases since 2007, agency records show.

Task force steps up

Prosecutors are anticipating charging a 43-year-old Montgomery man in the July 1 crash that killed Anis Atkins, 25, of Houston, and her passenger, Dominique Hobbs, 27, of Grand Prairie. After entering I-45 going in the wrong direction, the suspect's sedan slammed into the car driven by Atkins. A passenger in the suspect's car, Stephen Isbell, 47, also was killed.

Two days earlier, a pickup driven by Nicole Baukus, 23, of Spring, was traveling the wrong way on I-45 near Texas 242 when it smashed into a smaller car. The driver of the second vehicle, Nicole Adams, a 19-year-old from Conroe, was killed, as was her backseat passenger, Travis Ryan Saunders, 18, of Houston.

Baukus has been charged with two counts of intoxication manslaughter, prosecutors said.

"We found through those investigations that individuals have been over-serving alcohol beverages to an inexcusable amount," said Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam. "For example, one person had been served 22 alcoholic beverages and another 20."

The prosecutor declined to identify the two bars accused of over-serving, citing the ongoing investigations. It's unclear how many hours each suspect spent at the bars.

Since the two fatal wrecks, Diepraam said a task force made up of state troopers, state alcohol agents and officers from several local police departments has stepped up enforcement in Montgomery County.

So far, they've made 65 DWI arrests and charged another 41 bar patrons with public intoxication as they attempted to get into their cars and drive away.

"The results have been very good, because while the task force has conducted investigations there have been no more fatalities or serious crashes involving impaired drivers in Montgomery County," Diepraam said.

Other officers, he said, are going undercover to monitor alcohol sales at six bars along the Rayford/Sawdust corridor near The Woodlands.

The prosecutor said the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission has only one agent stationed in a county with 450,000 residents and more than 800 liquor outlets.

"I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the cause is, but I do know that there has been a decrease in enforcement efforts in the bars as a result of budget cuts and staffing shortages at TABC," Diepraam said. "It's impossible for one agent to conduct law enforcement investigations in 800 different establishments."

TABC 'shorthanded'

Maj. Robert Saenz, who heads TABC's 33-county Coastal Bend Division, confirmed his office is investigating bars in The Woodlands area to determine whether they over-served either of the two drivers involved in the wrong-way wrecks.

"Our investigation is looking at the source of the over-serving of alcohol," he said. "We're trying to determine who all there gave these people alcohol when they were already intoxicated."

Saenz said there are three TABC agents in Montgomery County, including two who were transferred there temporarily, but acknowledged the agency is understaffed there and in other major Texas cities.

"I would agree we are shorthanded, and we're trying to hire some people, but we're not there yet," Saenz said.

He said his agency has 27 unfilled vacancies in the coastal region, including 19 in Houston and Harris County, with the others in Beaumont, Bryan, Conroe and Lufkin. The number of agents and supervisors has been reduced from 278 in June 2009 to 202 currently on the job.

Better deterrent sought

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, believes laws should be strengthened to encourage bar owners to make sure employees don't over-serve customers, including significantly increasing criminal penalties.

Currently, it is a misdemeanor offense to serve an intoxicated person or for an employee to drink in a business with a liquor license, punishable by up to a $500 fine and a year in jail.

"It ought to be easier to hold them accountable, not only civilly but criminally, because that might serve as a better deterrent," Whitmire said. "My goal would be to prevent these tragedies by having harsh criminal penalties, including incarceration, against those that engage in serving somebody so much alcohol that they're sending a missile down the road."

Former Harris County prosecutor Will Womble has three lawsuits pending against local clubs where customers and an employee were served too much alcohol. Those patrons left the clubs and killed two motorists and permanently disabled a third.

"Harris County leads the nation every year in alcohol-related fatalities. That's why this stretch of freeway (I-45) is the intoxication capital of the country," Womble said. "And 50 percent of those drinking, and later involved in an accident, got their alcohol from some sort of an establishment, like a bar or restaurant."

One of those cases is against Sterling Country Club in northwest Harris County, filed after executive chef Stephen G. Ellis, 32, crashed his car into another after leaving work in August. During his shift, Ellis drank a number of double bourbon shots equivalent to 12 regular drinks, according to testimony in his intoxication manslaughter trial last month that ended with an eight-year prison sentence.

Ellis crashed into the rear of a car that flipped and landed on its top. The other motorist, Johnnie Lampton, was strangled by the seat belt.

Community's role

"You've got people who are making money and profiting by over-serving an individual, and letting them get on the road," Womble said. "It's a ticking time bomb, and bars and restaurants are loading the gun with a drunk and pulling the trigger by letting them get on the open road."

Attorneys representing the country club were not available for comment.

Glen Garey, general counsel for the Texas Restaurant Association, said the group's 5,000 members consider customer safety foremost and encouraged them to have employees trained in alcohol serving.

"Servers are on the front line, and you must as an owner stress every day - all the time - that safety is the paramount concern," Garey said.

"Everybody in the community has an important role to play stopping this kind of tragedy from happening," he said, "and that means personal responsibility, and taking responsibility for those you serve."

If you have been injured by a drunk driver or a loved one was killed in an alcohol-related car accident or truck accident, don't wait until witnesses cannot be located or their memories have faded. Contact the Leon Law Firm today at 281-980-4529. We provide free consultations in order to evaluate your case and determine the best course of action to take.

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