Why Do You Drink? To Get a Wee Bit Tipsy?

By - April 11, 2012 | Alcoholic Beverage Law | Email Will Cheek

It ain’t right to mess with a Hank Williams classic. We drink to get drunk, at least some of the time.

A couple of high profile Nashville drunk driving fatalities have Tennessee ABC agents and Metro Nashville police investigating several popular watering holes. Naturally, this has spooked bar owners.

The problem is that many patrons visit bars to get intoxicated. Yet the law does not allow a bar to serve intoxicated patrons. What gives?

Regulators and police informally recognize that revellers at bars often tie one on. As long as patrons don’t get behind the wheel, get into fights or otherwise cause too much trouble, the law usually allows folks to have a little fun.

Unless there is a fatal drunk driving accident or other serious tragedy. Suddenly the news media, police and lawyers are accusing the bar of over serving and not doing enough to prevent the patron from driving drunk.

The legal issue is “what constitutes intoxicated.” For driving, the standard is fairly low and is set by a blood test. For bars, there is no set standard. Bartenders serving a bustling weekend crowd have to make quick judgments based only on observations.

I personally love a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that determined if a patron was drunk at an infamous Nashville watering hole:

When we analyze this soldier’s actions in terms of his stated intention “to get bombed,” the conclusion is inevitable that success crowned his efforts. While he lolled, loafed, and loitered about the Classic Cat satisfying his lickerish craving for liquor by lapping up lavish libations, he fell from his chair, clutching his drink in his hand, into the waiting hands of vice squad officer McElhaney, who helped him up and took him to jail.

We subject his conduct to the most liberal standard that has come to the attention of the author of this opinion:

Not drunk is he who from the floor
Can rise alone and still drink more;
But drunk is he, who prostrate lies,
Without the power to drink or rise.

This soldier fails the test. He was drunk openly, visibly, notoriously, gloriously and uproariously drunk.

The Classic Cat II violated one of the great commandments by which “beer joints” must live. In summary and in short, in paraphrase and in idiom, the law “don’t allow no (drunken) hanging around” beer establishments.

Tennessee is flirting with imposing more responsibility on the server of alcohol. Tennessee has a fairly business-friendly statute for “dram shop” actions. The majority of the fault lies with the individual that consumes alcohol, unless the person is visibly intoxicated or under-aged.

But purveyors of alcohol are under increasing public scrutiny for the actions of their drunk patrons.

The Tennessean recently ran a feature about a tragic alcohol induced car accident that killed two pedestrians.

The article vividly illustrates the level of scrutiny placed after the fact on a server of alcohol, which in this case was an office party.

In the wake of a tragic death, it is easy to say that more could have been done to stop the person from driving. What may look easy in retrospect is usually beyond what is possible to do for every single patron on every single day.
We expect that regulators and police may lower the threshold for what constitutes intoxicated for purposes of cutting off a patron. There is no set standard, and its easy to see why police and regulators would prefer for folks to stay on the sober side.