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Cops go to bars
to arrest drunks

Gestapo-like tactics prompt outrage, complaints among owners, citizenry

Posted: January 6, 2003
1:00 a.m. Eastern


In the ongoing effort to keep public places clear of intoxicated citizens and drunk drivers, some police agencies are using a controversial tactic going directly into bars and restaurants in order to make arrests.

Such is the situation in northern Virginia, where Fairfax County Police are targeting patrons suspected of having one too many.

"[Officers] were talking to one of the guests, then physically pulled him off the barstool," Richie Prisco, general manager at Champps bar told the Reston Times. "They were really aggressive and nasty."

According to the report, police are hauling customers outside of establishments to conduct sobriety tests, then arresting them for public drunkenness should they fail.

Tavern owner Jimmy Cirrito says it was intimidating and unnecessary to have some ten officers show up in SWAT-like attire. He notes police seemed to be tagging people at random, despite their telling bar owners they had undercover agents inside, calling in to provide specific descriptions of certain individuals.

"They tapped one lady on the shoulder who was on her first drink and had just eaten dinner to take her out on the sidewalk and give her a sobriety test," Cirrito told the paper. "They told her she fit the description of a woman they had complaints about, and that they heard she was dancing topless."

Cirrito said the woman passed the test and was allowed back in, but soon after, police pulled another woman outside who had arrived shortly before officers did.

"They made her count backward, say the alphabet, tell them where she lived, how she got there, how she was getting home," he said. "She had just gotten there five minutes ago in a cab."

Authorities say such methods are not new, despite protests from bar owners that they've never heard of police coming inside their establishments to enforce drinking laws.

"I've been an officer for over 17 years, and we've been doing it on and off over my entire career," police spokeswoman Sophia Grinnan told the Times. "As much as officers hate to spoil a good time, they hate even more to go out at 2 a.m. and work a death of anybody that is alcohol-related."

Virginia statutes say any business with a liquor license is considered a public place; therefore, police are allowed free access. If they find someone over the legal alcohol limit of .08, or suspect a customer of being intoxicated while still being served or present in an establishment, police can issue a ticket for public intoxication.

In response to complaints the raids were overly aggressive, Grinnan said, "I've had bar owners come up to me [and] ask what is going on, but I've also had some approach me aggressively, telling me I couldn't be there and I was violating their constitutional rights. We love to give explanations of what we're doing because it has an impact, but officers don't have to give up their game plan. That is just a courtesy."

In the wake of the published report, citizens appear to be siding with the bar owners and patrons, gauging from posts in an online messageboard.

"The way police are handling the drink situation is the biggest B.S. I have ever heard of," wrote Ray Williams.

"I lost a son (at age 16) a few years ago, and I most certainly support stopping anyone from drinking and driving. However, this police raid that seems to take place at some local bars is just totally crazy. ... Are we now living in a communist environment where we are not allowed to do anything without being harassed by the military/police?"

Russ Heisinger of Northport, N.Y., asked: "What is next, the alcohol police entering your home on Super Bowl Sunday, and inviting you outside to take a breath test? A solution would be for all the bar and restaurant owners to become 'private clubs,' and charge a very nominal fee for membership. However, the true solution is for the 'Barney Fifes' there to uphold the part of the Constitution about unlawful search, and to remember that we are after all, a free society, unless the cops think this is Baghdad!"

Others, like Don Armstrong, urged people to reject field sobriety tests, and request a blood-alcohol test at a local hospital.

"I have a form of arthritis that often affects my speech patterns and walking abilities," he wrote. "Under their standards of an acceptable set of motor functions, I would fail even if I never had an alcoholic drink."

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