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June 6, 2003
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Mike Heidig

Mike Heidig is one of many restaurant and bar patrons who were arrested last month in Virginia. His crime? Being intoxicated in a public place. (ABCNEWS.com)
A Crime to Drink?
Bar Patrons in Virginia Arrested Just for Being Drunk
ABCNEWS.com

Jan. 10 Mike Heidig was dressed as Santa Claus and had just finished a rousing karaoke version of "Jingle Bell Rock" at a Reston, Va., bar when a police officer asked him to step outside.


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Heidig, who was at the bar Champps with a group of his work colleagues, complied. After failing a breath test designed to test his sobriety, Heidig was loaded into a van and taken to jail on charges of public intoxication.

"I was in a public place drinking," Heidig said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "I was not driving, I didn't even have a car."

Heidig, who hired an attorney to contest the charges, said he left his car, wallet and keys two miles away at his office, and he had made arrangements to stay overnight at a friend's place in Reston.

Heidig insists that he was not acting obnoxious in the bar when he was pulled outside. While reciting the alphabet he stumbled on the letter "Q" and was given a breathalyzer test.

Heidig was just one of the restaurant and bar patrons were swept up last month in a joint operation of the Fairfax County police and the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control an operation authorities say they may repeat. The agencies are trying to crack down on drunken driving by picking out drunks before anyone gets behind the wheel.

Nine People Arrested

Over the recent holidays, undercover cops went into bars in Reston and Herndon, Va., to see if bartenders were overserving customers. Police ended up raiding three bars and arresting nine patrons who failed sobriety tests. Patrons who failed were charged with public intoxication, a misdemeanor.

"If the law says that if you are in a public location and intoxicated, you are subject to arrest," said Lt. Tor Bennett of the Reston District of the Fairfax County Police Department.

He said that in practice, people who are a little intoxicated but minding their own business are probably not going to be bothered by police.

The person "must be drawing attention to themselves," said Bennett, who supervised the operation.

"What drew their attention to Mike [Heidig] in this particular evening was not a fight or disruption out in the parking lot," Bennett said. "Mike happened to be wearing a Santa Claus suit and was seen with a karoke machine at the bar and that's how he got arrested."

Under Virginia law, a restaurant or bar is considered a public space, and public intoxication is a low-level misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $250 and can also be punishable by a night in jail.

Restaurateurs Cry Foul

Civil libertarians are saying the police have gone too far, and restaurant and bar owners fear that the raids are scaring away their customers who are drinking responsibly.

Jimmy Cirrito, owner of Jimmy's Old Tavern in Herndon, one of the bars that was raided, says he takes excessive drinking very seriously. Two people leaving his bar were arrested for being drunk on the way to their cars.

"The last thing I want to see is any of my customers get hurt," he said. For that reason, he said, it's his policy to have bartenders call a cab and cut off drinks to anyone they think is intoxicated.

But Cirrito is worried that the police crackdowns will harm his business. When police came to his bar in mid-December, he said, it looked like a full-scale invasion, with seven squad cars pulling up and 12 officers walking in single-file.

Bennett called the operation "low-key," but Cirrito described it as intimidating

"I have never seen this before," Cirrito said. "I've seen the Alcohol Beverage Control [teams] come in and look for intoxicated people that are possibly causing a disturbance, and they've either warned myself or the manager at the restaurant, but I've never seen 12 uniformed officers walk in and begin taking people out on the sidewalk and giving them sobriety tests."  

 
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