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
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
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
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
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
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.