One Danger to Police Officers Will Continue Until We Hold Bars Accountable

Jeffrey CarrAugust 21, 2020 6 minutes

Mention police officers and drunk drivers in the same sentence, and I'll bet most people will assume that you're talking about the role that police play catching drunk drivers and protecting the public. What many people never consider is the threat that drunk drivers pose to the police.

Given that the hours when most police patrol coincide with peak drunk driving times, stories of officers injured by drunk drivers abound. In Texas, hardly a week goes by without a story in the news about an officer hurt, on duty, after their vehicle is struck by a drunk driver.

Two recent incidents illustrate just how real the drunk driving danger is to police, and also highlight the urgent need to take action to protect those who protect us.

2 Texas Drunk Driving Crashes, 5 Dead Police Officers

Ausgust 9th brought home the danger that drunk drivers pose to all Texans, with the death of Officer Sheena Yarbrough-Powell. According to local news reports, Officer Yarbrough-Powell, only 23-years-old, died while on patrol, when alleged wrong-way, drunk-driver Luis Torresher struck her vehicle on Cardinal Drive . The crash also injured Officer Gabriel Fells, who was in the same car as Officer Yarbrough-Powell.

This incident comes on the heels of last month's crash in Kerr County, in which an alleged drunk driver plowed into a group of Thin Blue Line motorcyclists, killing 4 retired police officers, and injuring many others in the process. In the aftermath of the crash, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission investigated to determine where the drunk driver procured his alcohol. Eventually, they had enough evidence to charge a clerk at a Dollar General with selling alcohol to the drunk, while he was already intoxicated.

Similary, TABC is already investigating where the alleged drunk-driver who collided with Officer Yarbrough-Powell's vehicle obtained his alcohol. While no charges or citations have been issued yet, news outlets report that one particular restaurant in Beaumont has already received a visit from the TABC.

It's quite possible that both of these incidents resulted from an employee at a licensed alcohol provider breaking the rules and serving an intoxicated patron. That points the way to a solution that I doubt many people have ever heard of.

Dram Shop Is an Underutilized Tool to Hold Bad Bars Accountable

I'm referring to dram shop law, a tool so underutilized that many attorneys are not familiar with it. Here are the basics of how dram shop works and how it can help reduce drunk driving crashes. The Texas Dram Shop Act established this area of the law, creating a tool that holds bars accountable when the staff serves an obviously intoxicated patron who is a danger to themselves or others. Put more simply, when a bar serves a drunk person, and that person hurts themselves or another person, the bar can share responsibility with the drunk of the resulting harm.

How does this help reduce the dangers that police officers face from drunk drivers? Well, the attorneys at Grossman Law Offices are quick to point out that they've never had to sue the same bar twice. This is because bars who lose a dram shop claim tend to clean up their act, emphasize safe alcohol service, and ultimately stop putting drunks on the road.

It's hardly a surprise that in both of the incidents I mentioned earlier, that the alleged drunks may have been served alcohol when they law says they shouldn't have been. The majority of drunk drivers involved in serious injury crashes come from a bar or restaurant. In each of those instances, a bar had to break the law, prior to the crash.

As a society, already took most of the obvious, simple steps to reduce drunk driving. Lawmakers raised the drinking age to 21; activists increased awareness of just how much harm drunk driving causes; and we all created a culture that stigmatizes, instead of tolerating drunk driving.

Unfortunately, bars still get a pass when it comes to this sea change. There are people, including some of my own friends, who insist that, "It's a bar's job to get people drunk." These attitudes not only permit bars to shirk their legal responsibilities, they also run counter to how we address other problems in the community.

Why Do We Demonize Drug Dealers, but Celebrate Bars?

Let me start by answering my own question, "Why do we demonize drug dealers, but celebrate bars?" The way we view drug dealers and the way we view bars should be different. It is possible to operate a safe, legal drinking establishment. By definition, a person can't deal drugs without running afoul of the law. With that said, the parallels with how we attempt to treat the problems arising from unsafe drug versus unsafe alcohol distribution show a stark difference.

For instance, I don't know a single person who thinks that drug dealing isn't worse than using drugs. When it comes to drugs, we rightfully understand that the problem is one of supply. If folks wouldn't break the law by selling drugs, the drug addicts wouldn't be in a position to cause the problems that they do. No one suggests that addicts bear all the responsibility for their choice to use, therefore we should ignore the dealers and lock up all the addicts.

While people don't hold this view towards drugs, substitute "drugs" with "alcohol," and they start to lionize the bar, while demonizing the drunk. I fail to see how a bar that serves a person to such an extreme that they end up killing someone is just doing their job. In fact, they may be worse than the drug dealer, because at least the drug dealer doesn't pretend to be anything other than a criminal, whereas the bars that break the law try to argue that its their professional obligation.

Going After the Worst of the Worst

Even police don't pursue every drug dealer, because they lack the officers and resources to do so. The dorm room marijuana dealer doesn't face the same scrutiny as the cocaine dealer who is killing people. Police routinely prioritize their efforts to get the most dangerous offenders off of the streets. What is the effect of this strategy? It saves lives, including the lives of officers.

Similarly, using dram shop to crack down on bad bars isn't a means to harass the bars that follow the rules; rather it puts real pressure on the owners of the bars that kill and injure people in our communities. How do I know that these bars represent the worst of the worst? The hundreds of cases that Grossman Law Offices attorneys litigated over the years tells that tale.

Under the law, every bar owner possesses what amounts to a legal get-out-of-jail-free card. Put simply, if they can argue to the court that they follow TABC rules, and that the over-service that killed or injured someone is the result of one rogue staff member, the court lets them out of the case. They're untouchable. How many times have the bars and restaurants Grossman Law Offices sued successfully cleared this really low bar? Zero.

Either they completely flouted TABC rules, not even requiring their servers to obtain safe-alcohol service training, or they permitted behavior that violated TABC rules. For bars like these, they behave as if getting people drunk is their job. This attitude not only endangers the public, but that danger falls disproportionately on the police, who are out doing their jobs, while drunks are weaving their way home.

How Can Holding Bars Accountable Help?

As I mentioned earlier, more than half of all drunk driving crashes involve someone leaving a bar or restaurant who is too drunk to drive. In Texas, it's already against the law to serve alcohol to a drunk person. That means that getting the bad bars and restaurants to follow the rules has the potential to eliminate half of the serious drunk driving crashes in our state.

Getting every bar to live up to their obligations could save as many as 500 lives and prevent 1000 life-altering injuries every single year, including dozens of police officers. With that goal in mind, the question is, "How do we achieve that goal?"

Certainly, law enforcement and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission have roles to play, but they've been doing their best for the better part of 50 years. At the same time, most people don't know that dram shop law even exists. In fact, some bar owners that our attorneys litigated against didn't understand what they were being sued for, until their attorneys explained the law to them. It doesn't just show how little people know about dram shop law, it shows that these owners didn't even avail themselves of the $15 TABC safe alcohol-service classes, which discuss dram shop.

Without dram shop law, bars actually turn a profit by breaking the rules. They get money in their pockets, while Texas families, taxpayers, and police officers bear the consequences of their reckless decisions. Dram shop changes that equation. Instead of making more money by selling to drunks, bar owners face the prospect of footing the bill for the deaths and injuries they help cause.

Does this change behavior? Absolutely. There's a reason Grossman Law Offices, despite suing hundreds of bars hasn't had to sue the same bar twice. The sting of dram shop litigation either forces bad bar owners to change their ways or close up shop. In either instance, it's fewer drunk drivers on the road to potentially injure the public, and particularly police officers.

While we could hire more officers, and crack down on drunk driving even more than authorities already do, that doesn't solve the problem. Putting more officers in harm's way still leaves the source of the problem untouched. Citizens and police officers both have the right to use our roadways at anytime, day or night, without the threat that drunk drivers pose. The biggest step we can take to achieve that goal is to fight drunk driving at it's source. Holding bad bars accountable via dram shop is the best underutilized tool to that end.