Walworth County man pushing for stronger enforcement of bartender serving laws

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Kevin Hoffman
Friday, January 7, 2011
— A Walworth County man is fighting for stronger enforcement of a state statute that allows bartenders to be held liable for drunken customers who make streets dangerous for other drivers.

The district attorney's office could respond in April whether it will support prosecuting bartenders and taverns when drunken drivers cause deadly crashes. The Walworth County Highway Safety Commission has considered the idea since last summer, and it's awaiting a response from the district attorney at its next meeting.

Tom Anthony, former division chair at Gateway Technical College, raised the issue with the commission in July. It was on the agenda for the commission meeting again Thursday, but it was tabled because nobody from the district attorney's office was at the meeting.

The Gazette was not able to get a comment from the DA's office Thursday afternoon.

If the law was more strictly enforced, Anthony believes, bars would be reluctant to serve intoxicated patrons, reducing the number of fatal crashes.

Walworth County had 11 fatal crashes in 2010, though not all of them involved drunken drivers. That's down from 18 the year before and slightly below the five-year average.

"It wouldn't take too many prosecutions for the word to get around, and maybe you'll see a little more responsible serving," Anthony said. "That's my goal in all of this."

State law authorizes fines of up to $500 or 60 days in jail for bartenders who serve to drunken customers.

But it's rarely enforced.

Anthony said he talked to law enforcement about buying into on the project. Without knowing if the district attorney's office would prosecute servers, law enforcement would be reluctant to spend resources investigating where suspects were drinking before a crash, he said.

In Marathon County in June, a bartender was charged for serving shots and mixed drinks to a 52-year-old man before he left and later died in a one-car rollover. It was the first time the county used the statute in 11 years.

Anthony, who oversaw Gateway classes for convicted drunken drivers, said a survey distributed to first-time and repeat violators showed 70 percent of them had been drinking at a bar before being arrested.

That's proof the state law is ignored, he said.

One of the simplest solutions is education, Anthony said. He believes if enough people were made aware of the law, servers would be reluctant to sell alcohol to drunken patrons.

It could be as simple as distributing letters to the county's licensed alcohol establishments.

"There is a percentage of people that if there's a law and they know about it, they'll obey it," Anthony said. "Then you have a dimension of people that fear the law, then you have people that no matter how strict it is, they're going to blow it off.

"A key is changing the culture," he said.

If the county approves the initiative, it would be up to crash investigation teams to establish where drunken drivers were drinking.

The district attorney could address the issue at the commission's April 7 meeting.

Last updated: 4:09 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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