Bar Raids Irritate Owners, Drinkers
Fairfax Police Defend Sobriety Testing
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 8, 2003; Page B01
As the designated driver in her dinner party, Pat Habib was careful to consume no more than one alcoholic drink and follow it up with two sodas.
So she was shocked when a police officer singled her out of the crowd at Jimmy's Old Town Tavern in Herndon and asked her to step outside to prove her sobriety. After she ran through the alphabet without pause, the Fairfax County police officer let her go and explained police had received a complaint about an unruly blond woman matching her description. Then she watched as police tested other women looking nothing like her.
"I could see it if they wanted to prevent you from getting into a car, but they didn't even ask me if I was driving," Habib said.
Habib was among restaurant and bar patrons swept up last month in a joint operation of the Fairfax County police and the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. During the holiday period, undercover agents went to 20 bars in Reston and Herndon looking for examples of bartenders "overserving" customers. Police ultimately raided three bars and arrested nine patrons who failed sobriety tests. They were charged with public drunkenness and spent the night in jail.
Police consider the operation a success and said they would consider doing it again. Lt. Tor Bennett, assistant commander of the Reston District station, described it as a "low-key" operation designed to stop drunks before they got behind the wheel.
"We're not talking about someone who was enjoying a cocktail or two and enjoying a nice evening out," Bennett said, noting that the nine men arrested had blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.14 to 0.22. "They drew attention to themselves by their actions."
But civil libertarians, restaurateurs and many of their customers who were either questioned or arrested have decried the police tactic. They said many people who were drinking responsibly and causing no commotion now have the Class 4 misdemeanor of public intoxication on their record, and many more potential customers were scared away for good out of fear that a drink or two could get them arrested.
"It does smack of a pending police state if law enforcement is going into establishments to monitor behavior," said Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Association. "At the same time, we strongly oppose any combination of drinking and driving."
Under Virginia law, a restaurant or bar is a public place, and public intoxication is a low-level misdemeanor punishable by a night in jail and up to a $250 fine.
Kent Willis of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said the law does not specify what level of blood alcohol constitutes public drunkenness. The level for drunken driving is 0.08.
Police said the holiday raids, first reported in the Reston Times, were born of a community policing goal of discouraging crime before it occurs. Bennett said police had been called repeatedly to the three bars in response to fights and disorderly conduct. Undercover agents found no problems in 17 other bars they visited before Christmas, he said. And four of the men arrested were on their way to their cars when police stopped them, he said.
"We're not talking about overzealousness here," Bennett said, adding that uniformed police officers who made the arrests were accompanied by members of the police bicycle patrol clad in nylon pants and polo shirts.
But bartenders and patrons saw it differently.
At Ned DeVine's restaurant in Reston, owner Graham Davies said seven or eight police officers "came bursting into the place."
"If they decided you had too much to drink, you were targeted," Davies said, acknowledging that he believed the three customers who were arrested at his tavern probably had too much to drink.
"The police are within their rights. I can't disagree with what they want to do, which is save lives. But I disagree with the way they did it."
At Champps in Reston, general manager Kevin O'Hare described police as "antagonistic." He said they "pulled" people from their chairs who were making no commotion. "They're always welcome to come in anytime," he said of police. "It's not an issue when they talk to our guests. But when they actually pull people out of their seats, it is an issue. When it's borderline harassment, it's an issue."
One man who was arrested during one of the police raids acknowledged having several drinks during the course of the afternoon, but said he was not driving or acting unruly as he sat at a table with several work colleagues. He had just finished singing "Jingle Bell Rock" on the karaoke machine when an officer asked him to step outside. He failed a breath test and was taken in a van to jail.
"I've lived my life with tremendous respect for the rule of law," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is contesting the charges.
Now his respect is tarnished.
"You could be anybody, anywhere, and they can take you out and throw you in jail," he said. ". . .I didn't do anything other than to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the operation was a tool to reduce drunken driving and would be evaluated before it is repeated.