Rock Howard just testified to the Texas legislative committee reviewing the actions of the TABC board. Here’s his report:
I just attended the public hearing concerning the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and their just suspended sting program. Amazingly the situation is much worse than I anticipated.
The Texas Legislature has a Sunset Advisory Committee that reviews each state agency every 12 years to review their performance. Since 1978 the process has abolished 32 state agencies and consolidated 32 others. However this time around the Committee laid an egg. In its’ recent review of the TABC the Sunset Committee came down quite hard on them due to a raft of complaints from around the state. Despite the fact that the agency was floundering in many aspects of their work, the Committee decided that the real problem was that the TABC wasn’t doing enough to curtail DWIs in Texas.
The upshot was that the TABC received an additional injection of funds and a charge to go do something about DWIs even though the TABC Code makes no provision for operating in that sphere of law enforcement. (The TABC is charged, among other things, with insuring that bars do not serve underage or overly intoxicated patrons, but arresting public citizens has never been a part of their core operations.)
The result was an expansion of the existing Sales to Intoxicated Persons (SIP) program to include undercover sting operations in targeted bars. Apparently this plan was concocted by the TABC without legislative approval. Was this a new idea? No! It was tried once in Fairfax County, Virginia. The local police and the VABC ran a similar program in late 2002. It was curtailed quickly due to public outcry. In a sign of true dysfunction, the TABC convinced themselves that they could get a different result.
Law enforcement personal from around the state testified to support the program, but the most telling testimony was from a senior officer in Brazos County who has been running a similar program without TABC help. They use hidden cameras and focus primarily on aggressive behavior that clearly crosses the line in terms of there being a palpable risk to others. Even with these safeguards and limitations they end up releasing many patrons especially if there is a responsible and sober party available to escort the patron home. The point was made that the program must not go “over the top” since the upshot would be less drinking in local bars and more in house parties and/or remote bars which both lead to more drunk driving miles and ultimately more carnage on the road.
In contrast TABC hired high school graduates with no law enforcement training to take on the task of serving as undercover agents. They also hired many “civilians”, as they called them, to take over many day-to-day operations in order to free up formerly desk-bound agents to participate in the stings. Clearly these new field agents reveled in the chance to actually enforce the Texas Penal Code instead of the boring old TABC code which forces them to focus on bar owners, alcohol distributors and the like.
Not unsurprisingly these rookie agents were not concerned with building solid evidentiary cases and also readily ignored the operational guidelines established by the TABC. In fact many of the 2,200 SIP detainees will not be prosecutable. A number of sting victims are not only fighting the charges, but are also exploring various rights violations stemming from the arrests. The upshot is that the tab from this brief program could run into the tens or hundreds of millions.
Most outrageous is the “cowboy attitude” exhibited by TABC according to State Senator John Whitmire who co-chaired today’s hearings. He chastised TABC tactics including operations where agents dressed in SWAT uniforms and stormed targeted bars. Other committee members reported stories of patrons forced up against a wall en masse. Plenty of individuals testified about being arrested without a sobriety test or even, in one case, of being arrested after passing a Breathalyzer test. At one point TABC even stole a page from the BATF and invited local television camera crews to film their sting operations.
Speaking for the Texas LP, I made these recommendations to the committee:
— Keep the program on suspension at least until after the 2007 general legislative session.
— Reclaim any remaining TABC funds from the most recent grant.
— Restrict the TABC to enforcing TABC Code. Leave the Texas Penal Code to real law enforcement.
As of late the TABC has been acting like a wounded bear. The sting program proves that they are a palpable danger to themselves and others (to borrow a phrase from the penal code that they have been trying to enforce.) It may be too late to repair the required bond of trust and cooperation between the state’s bar owners and the TABC. Given this reality and the public relations disaster that will no doubt haunt the agency for decades due to the stings, the Sunset Advisory Committee should seriously consider abolishing the TABC and transferring their required enforcement duties to some other state agency. It may be the only way for the Sunset Advisory Committee and the Texas Legislature to save face and help the public forget that this law enforcement disaster was precipitated in part by their own actions.
However my gut feeling is that the response to all this will be an adhoc working group of carefully selected “stakeholders” that will be tasked with solving the problems of this program. The upshot will be a further infusion of funds, more hiring, a massive public relations campaign and an expanded SIP program. I expect the reinstatement of the SIP program sometime shortly after the current special session is completed. After all, as cynics have already observed, it wouldn’t do to have this program in place while the lobbyists are busy wining and dining the legislators during the special session and the $8 billion dollar projected state surplus is simply too big for the fat cat lobbyists to ignore.
Robert “Rock” Howard
Chief Volunteer Lobbyist
The Libertarian Party of Texas