Bartender prosecution plan losing momentum

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Kevin Hoffman
Friday, April 8, 2011
— Proving a case against a careless bartender who overserves a patron would be almost impossible, a prosecutor told the Walworth County Highway Safety Commission on Thursday.

"I need the admission 'I was at the bar, I was intoxicated while I was at the bar, and while they were giving me more alcohol,'" said Zeke Wiedenfeld, Walworth County assistant district attorney. "I don't think it's enough to just have them say 'I shouldn't be driving right now' an hour later."

The commission has been discussing since last summer whether law enforcement and prosecutors could work together to enforce a rarely used state law.

Tom Anthony, a member of the commission, believes holding bartenders responsible for fatal drunken driving accidents would help curb the problem and encourage responsible serving.

"What I find is that so many people in the bar business, they have no concept of if a person consumes so much alcohol, what the resulting blood alcohol level is and what the impairment is," Anthony said at a meeting of the commission Thursday. "When we talk about a beverage, a lot of them are making the equivalent of two or three (drinks)."

Sheriff's deputies and county attorneys said they agree, but finding evidence for prosecution would be difficult.

Wiedenfeld gave the commission a draft letter outlining steps police would have to take to charge irresponsible bartenders. Even if those steps were followed, he said, jurors likely would be sympathetic to servers because it's often difficult to tell how much someone has had to drink.

State law allows bartenders who serve drunken customers to be fined up to $500 or jailed for 60 days. Last summer, a Marathon County bartender was charged when a customer left the tavern and died in a one-car rollover. It was the first time in 11 years the county enforced the statute.

For a bartender to be prosecuted in Walworth County, Wiedenfeld said, the district attorney's office would need:

-- An admission from the patron that he or she was drunk when served.

-- A statement from the patron about where he or she was served.

-- A statement from a sober witness confirming the patron was visibly intoxicated when served.

"Alcohol absorption itself is something that is different for every other person," Wiedenfeld said during an interview in March. "It's not that law enforcement agencies aren't aware of (the law), and it's not that it isn't taken into consideration. I just think that right now it's a law that a lot of people aren't getting charged with. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, I just think it is what it is."

Walworth County Judge John Race said Thursday it would be difficult defining "intoxicated" to a jury. He said it would be helpful to seek input from judges in Illinois, where third-party liability—holding bartenders responsible for crimes committed by others—is more common.

The commission agreed to not send Wiedenfeld's letter to the county's law enforcement agencies at this time.

Last updated: 5:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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