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Drinking While Brown (or Gay) in Texas Will Get You Arrested

The nation's broadest public intoxication law gives TX cops virtually free rein to arrest anyone for drunkenness -- even if they're quietly nursing a beer in a bar.
 
 
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Late on a balmy Saturday night last June, six Fort Worth cops and two officers from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission went looking for trouble. They had just raided two Hispanic bars in an industrial stretch of town and nine detainees now sat in the paddy wagon (pdf), hands bound with plastic ties. The rest of the city's bars would soon shut down. It seemed like the night was over, except for the paperwork. Then Sergeant Richard Morris had an idea. "Hey," he said. "Let's go to the Rainbow Lounge."

A half-dozen police cruisers, an unmarked sedan, and the prisoner van slid to a stop in front of the Rainbow Lounge, Fort Worth's newest gay club, at about 1:30 a.m. on June 28, 2009 -- 40 years, almost down to the minute, after New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn with billy clubs and bullhorns. Inside the bar, the officers fanned out, grabbing and arresting six patrons for public intoxication. Benjamin Guttery, a 24-year-old Army vet, says an officer told him to put down his drink, then "bulldozed" him through the crowd to the paddy wagon but then let him go. "I'm 6'8", 250 pounds, and I had just finished my second drink," Guttery told a local reporter. "I might have had enough to have a loose tongue, but not a loose walk or anything like that." Another man alleges that he was slammed against a wall, elbowed, and fell on the ground, landing him in intensive care for a week with bleeding in his brain. He was charged with public intoxication and assault.

They say everything's bigger in Texas, and that includes absurdity in law enforcement. Most states and towns have public intoxication (PI) laws that allow peace officers to pick up the drunk and disorderly. But in the Lone Star State, the nation's broadest PI law lets cops go virtually anywhere and arrest anyone for drunkenness—even if they're quietly nursing a beer in a bar.

Arrested for drinking in a bar? Sounds like the ultimate catch-22. Since 2006, when Texas overtook California as the state with the most drunk-driving fatalities, cops and a beefed-up task force from the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission have used a 1993 law as a pretext to enter any bar and arrest its patrons on the spot. The public intoxication standard, backed by the Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is so broad that you can be arrested on just a police officer's hunch, without being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. State courts have not only upheld the practice but expanded the definition of public intoxication to cover pretty much any situation, says Robert Guest, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. "Having no standard allows the police to arrest whoever pisses them off and call it PI," he says, adding, "If you have a violent, homophobic, or just an asshole of a cop and you give him the arbitrary power to arrest anyone for PI, you can expect violent, homophobic, and asshole-ic behavior."

For some officers, PI has provided a ready-made reason for detaining minorities. A Houston defense attorney, who asks to be unnamed since he specializes in misdemeanors such as PI, puts it this way: "If you're brown and you're around—you're going down." Nick Novello, a 27-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, blew the whistle on three colleagues who he claims filled their arrest quotas by picking up people, mostly minorities, for PI. "They were illegally arrested," Novello says. "It's an absolute perversion." ( Two were removed from the force.)

 
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