Why Don’t Authorities Arrest More Bad Bartenders?

Michael GrossmanFebruary 07, 2023 6 minutes

Friday, February 3, 2023, Lake Worth police arrested bartender Cala Richardson, charging her criminally for allegedly overserving the drunk driver who killed Euless police officer Detective Alex Cervantes. While every major media outlet in the DFW area ran with the story, none noticed how rare it is for a bartender to be arrested and charged in a case like this. This is an important oversight, because the reluctance of many Texas authorities to punish bartenders who serve patrons illegally does little to deter future tragedies, like the one in Lake Worth.

What Events Led to the Crash that Killed Detective Alex Cervantes?

According to reports, the events that led to the crash that killed Detective Alex Cervantes, and injured his family, began when Dylan Molina was drinking at Fuzzy's Taco in Lake Worth, Texas. Authorities allege that Cala Richardson was behind the bar that evening and served Mr. Molina what can charitably be described as an obscene amount of alcohol. Specifically, they allege that in a three-hour period prior to the fatal crash, Ms. Richardson served 8 double vodka and Red Bull cocktails to Mr. Molina. Each of those drinks is the equivalent of two servings of alcohol, bringing Mr. Molina's total consumption to 16 drinks in roughly three hours.

After leaving Fuzzy's Taco's, Mr. Molina reportedly blew through a red light at the intersection of Boat Club Road and Rocky Point Trail, and his vehicle collided with Detective Cervantes' vehicle. At the time of the crash, Detective Cervantes was off-duty and out with his family. As a result of the crash, Detective Cervantes died, his wife ended up in a coma for a month, and his two children sustained injuries.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, authorities charged Mr. Molina with one count of intoxication manslaughter for his role in Detective Cervantes' death, and three counts of intoxication assault for injuries to Detective Cervantes' wife and two children. Subsequently, Mr. Molina pleaded guilty and authorities sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

Why Did Authorities Arrest Bartender Cala Richardson?

You wouldn't know it by how many bars operate, but the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code makes it a crime for alcohol providers to serve alcohol to an already intoxicated person. The specific charge is Sale to Certain Persons and it carries a penalty of up to 1 year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

Authorities allege they have evidence that Ms. Richardson was the bartender who served Mr. Molina. Given the number of drinks reportedly involved and that it occurred over a 3-hour period, it's hard to see how anyone paying attention wouldn't have been able to tell that Mr. Molina was intoxicated. With the main perpetrator sentenced, Ms. Richardson was likely the only other person who may have committed a crime that contributed to the crash that killed Detective Cervantes.

I don't like speculating on why some matters result in prosecution, while others just get swept under the rug, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if TABC Detective Moore out of Fort Worth played some part in making sure everyone faced accountability in this case.

My firm has worked with her countless times in the past, and if the TABC gave out an award for determination and commitment to holding bad bars accountable, Detective Moore would earn it hand's down. There's no more passionate, dedicated investigator in the Fort Worth area.

Arresting Bartenders Is Rare in Texas

Let me lay my cards on the table, before we discuss why it's so rare to see a bartender arrested for serving a person who was already drunk. My firm litigates more dram shop, or liquor liability cases against bars than any other firm in Texas. These are cases where we sue a bar for the role their alcohol overservice played in a person's injury or death. In fact, we litigate so many cases that many other reputable firms partner with us on any dram shop cases that come their way. Because of this experience, my team and I are in a unique position to see the big picture when it comes to the state of alcohol enforcement in Texas.

In spite of being involved in hundreds of cases—cases where a bartender overserved a person who killed or injured someone as a result of being overserved—I can count on one hand the number of times that a bartender was arrested and charged with Sale to Certain Persons for their contribution to an alcohol-related incident. In one instance, authorities didn't have much choice, as the bar literally served a man so much alcohol that he died of alcohol poisoning practically at the bar.

The other time that comes to mind, where authorities charged a bartender, was in the aftermath of the infamous 2017 Plano mass shooting, where a man shot and killed 8 people and injured one more. Prior to the shooting the man had been drinking to excess at a local bar. Authorities subsequently arrested and charged the bartender who allegedly served the shooter well past the point where he should have been cut off.

In almost all the incidents my firm is involved in, we're able to prove in court that someone at a bar or restaurant overserved a person to such a degree that they went out and injured or killed another person. We basically prove an allegation analogous to Sale to Certain Persons. These establishments pay a significant financial penalty for their part in these incidents, but most of the time, local prosecutors appear to have very little interest in holding the bartender accountable.

It's almost an open secret in among bartenders and servers that there are likely to be no consequences if they choose to break the law and serve people who are already drunk. The problem is so bad that in a shockingly large percentage of my firm's cases, when we question a bartender under oath, they're usually not even aware that it's against the law for them to serve a drunk person. We often get some variation of "I'm a bartender, it's my job to serve drunk people."

That's not what Texas law says.

Bartender Accountability Is an Underused Tool in the Fight Against Drunk Driving

If you're read this far, you can easily understand why so many bartenders and servers can get the impression that their job is to serve drunks. It doesn't matter what the law says, if there's no one enforcing it. I fully understand that police and prosecutors have a lot on their plate. They can't be everywhere and pursue every potential criminal charge.

At the same time, authorities spend countless manhours and taxpayer dollars with DUI checkpoints and surge drunk-driving enforcement actions throughout any given year. I'm quite certain that most of those DUI suspects will gladly tell authorities where they were drinking and who served them. Given how many places have cameras these days, it's just an extra trip to a bar or restaurant and police have the evidence they need to hold the bartender who helped put the drunk on the road accountable as well.

I'm sure no prosecutor is going to make a career for pursuing these cases, but I'm certain they'll make a difference.

Prosecuting Bad Bartenders Protects Good Bars

Some of the reporting about the event's leading up to Detective Alex Cervantes' death lead me to question just how committed this Fuzzy's Taco was to serving alcohol safely. For instance, many outlets report that Ms. Richardson's TABC certification was expired. Now, it's not against the law for someone who isn't TABC certified to serve drinks in Texas, but best industry practices include mandating alcohol service for staff and making sure that all training is current. Bars that don't adhere to these best practices aren't really in a position to say they're doing everything they can to prevent drunk driving crashes.

But for bars that play by the rules and go to great efforts to serve alcohol safely, owners still have to worry that one bad apple is going to ruin their efforts to not serve alcohol to people who are already drunk. This problem gets worse when the legal consequences bartenders should face for breaking the law are so rarely imposed.

My firm does what it can by going after the bars whose lawbreaking contributes to drunk driving crashes. As a rule, we're not even too concerned whether it's us or another firm pursuing bad bars, we just want to make sure that someone pursues every actionable case where alcohol overservice hurts someone. As I said before, many times the owners end up footing a significant bill for what was a bartender's mistake. What sense does it make for authorities to let the bartender who didn't do their job off the hook?

We prohibit bartenders from serving intoxicated patrons to prevent tragedies like the one in Lake Worth and many others. If we want bartenders and servers to follow the rules, it's up to authorities to enforce them. Given how many people die or are injured by drunk drivers every year in Texas, arresting and charging bartenders who break the law should be standard practice; it should be expected. Sadly, we're not there yet.