Bartender DUI Responsibility in North Carolina DWI Cases

DWI Arrests and Bartender DUI Responsibility

Bartender DUI responsibility is not a new concept. In most States, there is some form of civil liability against bar owners if their employees serve alcohol to intoxicated persons who later get on the road and kill or injure other drivers in a serious accident (see NC DRAM shop law) Such laws are designed to discourage and punish bar owners who act irresponsibly and contribute to drunk driving accidents by knowingly serving drinks to patrons who already have had too many. Private homeowners who have guests over and provide alcohol can also be sued if they do not take proper precautions as well. But what about criminal prosecution? Is this approach practical or going too far in our quest to reduce drunk driving accidents?

Drunk Driving Public Awareness

Everyone by now should know and understand the dangers of drinking and driving. There are “booze it and lose it” billboards as well as television ads showing checkpoints and drunk drivers sitting in beer filled cars. These efforts to “educate” the public are certainly entertaining. And many people now believe it is actually illegal to drink anything and then get behind the wheel. The “don’t drink and drive” mantra has been largely misunderstood by the public, and unfortunately, juries as well. As a Charlotte DWI attorney, I have to remind juries that DUI laws actually allow you to drive after consuming alcohol unless your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 or greater, or your mental and physical facilities are impaired. Despite the State’s best efforts, arrests for driving while impaired (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI) continue to rise despite aggressive police enforcement. We also know that alcoholism is a disease that afflicts many people who seemingly cannot stop themselves from consuming alcohol. Drinking may cost them their careers, marriages, and even their health. Yet, they still do not stop. Drinking on their own is one thing. But when does a bartender have an individual duty to “cut someone off” and when is enough?

North Carolina Serving Intoxicated Person (SIP) Law

Bartender DUI responsibility is actually codified in several states. Here in North Carolina, we have N.C.G.S. Section 18B-305 that addresses “other prohibited sales.” More specifically, it is “unlawful for a permittee (bar owner) or employee or for an ABC store (liquor store) employee to knowingly sell or give alcoholic beverages to any person who is intoxicated.” It is these boldfaced words that are legally key to prosecution and highlight what will make this otherwise well intentioned law so difficult to pursue. In all but the obvious “falling down drunk” scenarios, it will be very challenging to show criminal intent here. Is the smell of alcohol enough? That indicator alone would not be legally sufficient for a DWI arrest. How about slurred speech? Unsteady on their feet? How is a bartender, much less a bar owner, supposed to know?

Bartender DUI Responsibility Without Police Enforcement Powers

bartender dui responsibilityPolice have the power to detain but must develop legally sufficient probable cause before arrest. Are we going to now have bar owners start administering field sobriety tests before serving another beer? Without proper safeguards, many otherwise “feel good” laws can unwittingly cause unintended consequences. We have to be careful in balancing our desire to reduce DUI injuries and death with commonsense assignment of true responsibility. No one ever wants to send a dangerous driver out on the road. Bartenders already know what’s at stake. We cannot hold them to the same level as police officers. Instead, let’s place the responsibility and blame where it really belongs – with the person who makes the fateful decision to risk the safety of everyone by driving impaired. Those who want to punish anyone and everyone should take solace in knowing that North Carolina DWI laws are extremely one sided and difficult to defend. Further, DUI penalties are harsh, even for a first time conviction without accident or injury. Anyone who has faced a DWI arrest knows this fact. Let’s let the police do their job. Studies consistently demonstrate that the best way to reduce impaired driving accidents is more aggressive enforcement of DUI laws. Making DWI arrests will save lives, but accepting personal responsibility can save us all.