Liquor laws controversial

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Liquor stores and restaurants toasted changes to Colorado's liquor laws that went into effect Thursday. Law enforcers also applauded most of the changes but worried that some measures might promote drunken driving.

The new law makes three major changes by:

n Lowering the drunken driving threshold from 0.1 percent blood-alcohol content to 0.08 percent;

n making it legal to drive with an unfinished bottle of wine in the car; and

n Allowing liquor stores to conduct liquor tastings.

The new state law, approved by the Colorado Legislature as House Bill 1021, passed in May after several years of debate and controversy. The law is a compromise between demands from legislators, lobbyists for the liquor industry and the Colorado Restaurant Association, and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Though few were unequivocally happy with all the changes, most were glad the law passed. The changes are expected to boost business and promote safety, but some are concerned they will encourage drunken driving.

DUI definition changes

Foremost, the new law expands the definition of drunken driving. Previously, drivers whose blood-alcohol content was 0.1 percent or above were considered intoxicated and could be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. Drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent to 0.1 percent could be charged with driving while ability impaired.

Under the new definition, however, a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent qualifies as intoxication. Colorado was the 48th state to lower the threshold to 0.08 percent, and now, all 50 states have done so, said Christy Le Lait, executive director of the Colorado chapter of MADD.

"Of course, the 0.08 percent definition faced opposition from the liquor industry, but the biggest challenge to it was the mentality from legislators that they didn't want to be told what to do," Le Lait said.

The federal government long has pushed states to lower the threshold to 0.08 percent BAC, but many Colorado legislators resisted doing so because they felt coerced.

"It was a blackmail situation created by the federal government. The hammer was that if we didn't do it, they would withhold transportation and construction money in the order of $50 million," state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said.

Although Taylor ultimately agreed with lowering the threshold, he disapproved of the perceived federal coercion.

Blackmail or not, proponents are happy the expanded definition has become law.

"We've been working for years to get it passed, and we're very pleased to see it happen," Le Lait said.

"All the studies that we use for training indicate significant impairment occurs at 0.08 percent, so we're happy it passed," Colorado State Patrol Trooper Brett Hilling said.

But other than changing the threshold at which a person is charged with DUI instead of the lesser driving while ability impaired charge, authorities don't think the new law will alter their operation.

Who the change effects

"In the scheme of things, nothing really changes for us," Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae said. "It always has been illegal to drive with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level, but now the driver will face a DUI charge instead of a DWAI charge."

While both are illegal, DUIs and driving while ability impaired carry different penalties. With the latter, offenders receive eight points against their drivers' licenses. Those convicted of a DUI receive 12 points against their licenses and have their licenses revoked for three months.

More than 6,000 people a year could face the stiffer penalties, if previous trends continue.

The Colorado Department of Human Services evaluated almost 60,000 people convicted of DUI or DWAI during the past two years. About 10 percent of those people had blood-alcohol contents of 0.08 percent to 0.1 percent, said Bruce Mendelson, a senior researcher with the department's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division. Those 6,000 people would be charged with DUIs rather than DWAI.

"We think the stricter definition will deter more people from driving intoxicated and will prevent some deaths and injuries," Hilling said.

Researchers with MADD predict that the 0.08 percent definition will save 500 lives a year nationwide, Le Lait said.

Keeping tabs on BAC

Monitoring personal blood-alcohol content can be difficult, however. Because people vary in their response to alcohol, it is difficult to say how many alcoholic beverages would raise one's blood-alcohol content to 0.08 percent.

A rule of thumb is that it takes a 160-pound male four drinks in one hour to reach 0.08 percent, but that number should not be taken literally.

"If it's a light-weight person who hasn't eaten and doesn't drink a lot, one glass might have a huge effect," Rae said.

For that reason, anyone flirting with the 0.02 percent to 0.05 percent threshold shouldn't drive, he said

"Our best recommendations are still to have a designated driver or to take a bus or taxi," Rae said.

Wine-bottle measure

To make the 0.08 percent definition more appealing and to facilitate its passage, legislators attached to House Bill 1021 a measure that allows drivers to carry an unfinished bottle of wine from a restaurant or hotel in their vehicles as long as the bottle has been re-corked and is out of arm's reach. Until now, that was illegal in Steamboat Springs because open-container laws prohibit having any unsealed alcohol containers in public.

Allowing people to bring the wine home, some argue, will improve road safety because people won't feel pressured to gulp down the rest of the bottle before leaving a restaurant.

"If people don't think it's safe to have more than one glass of wine but don't want to waste money, now they have the option of recorking it and taking it home," Rae said.

Proponents also say that the measure will boost business at restaurants and hotels because people will be more willing to buy a bottle of wine when they know they can save the extra wine.

Some caveats exist, however. The law does not apply to bars with a tavern license, and it only applies to 750-milliliter wine bottles, not the larger ones.

Although the new provision may encourage people to drink less at a restaurant, some worry that drivers will drink the wine while in the car.

"Some law enforcers have their hands up saying, 'We can't enforce the open-container laws now,'" City Clerk Julie Jordan said.

The law stipulates that the bottle must be recorked and out of arm's reach, but the definition of those requirements is foggy. The state has not yet developed rules for how the bottle must be recorked and where it must be stowed in the car.

Some, including Le Lait, suggest that the wine bottle should not only be recorked but also be resealed with paraffin so that police can tell whether it has been opened. She also thinks the bottles should be in the trunk of the car or, in the case of sport utility vehicles, in the very back.

"In theory, the wine-bottle measure sounds wonderful because people might drink less at a restaurant, but only one paragraph of the new law talks about it, and it gives no guidelines on corking, transportation and how police are supposed to tell if someone's violating open-container laws. What's to stop someone from finishing it in the car?" Le Lait asked.

The Colorado Department of Revenue is in the process of developing guidelines, but until then, law enforcers will have to improvise.

To facilitate that process locally, the city clerk has sent letters to restaurants and hotels asking them to voluntarily recork bottles, tape them and attach a tag explaining the driver's responsibility.

"Although it's not mandated, we're just asking the restaurants to help us out a step further," Jordan said.

She also thinks there needs to be a clear definition of "within arm's reach."

"Potentially, that could be the backseat, but maybe that's not good enough because I can reach back there and grab something," Jordan said.

Some fear there is little to stop a driver from drinking wine in the car and, if pulled over, quickly recorking it and throwing it in the back seat.

"Nothing prevents them from doing that, but it's against the law," Rae said. "Maybe something down the road will require restaurants to seal the bottle, but right now it's people's honor that prevents it."

Outside city limits, the wine-bottle provision won't change things much because neither the state nor the county has an open-container law, so it already is legal to drive with an opened container of alcohol.

Liquor tastings allowed

Another measure attached to the law permits liquor stores to give free samples of beer, wine and spirits to customers at liquor tastings, if the stores' municipality chooses to allow it.

Jordan has received three requests from liquor stores to hold tastings, but the stores will not be able to do so until the city develops rules to govern them, which probably will happen in August.

Many liquor store owners are excited about the measure because they think it will help business.

"We serve smaller products with not-as-well-known wines, so right now all our customers have to go on is what we say. With this law, customers can try the wine for themselves, and I think that'll help us sell more wine," said Lisa Lesyshen, the owner of Vino.

But, like with the wine-bottle measure, some worry tastings could encourage drunken driving.

"We don't like the wine-tasting law at all. It creates such a risk because you're in the liquor store, so you'll be getting in your car to drive soon," Le Lait said.

Several years ago, a wine-tasting measure was vetoed by Gov. Bill Owens for similar reasons.

Lesyshen, however, doesn't think drunken driving will be a problem because liquor stores will monitor customers just as bars or restaurants do.

"You have to be careful that people aren't drinking too much wine, and we already take classes on how to watch for intoxication. If we see that people are intoxicated, we're not allowed to sell alcohol to them," she said.

Several rules regulating the wine tastings also seek to minimize the danger. Liquor stores can hold the tastings 104 days of the year and on four days of the week. They can last for five hours a day and must be held between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Additionally, the stores only can serve 1-ounce servings of wine and malt and half-ounce samples of liquor, and a patron can have only four samples.

"Even then, the statutory law could be changed to make that more stringent," Jordan said.

But such guidelines may be easily thwarted, Le Lait said.

"If you're only allowed to have four samples at a store, what's to keep people from driving down the road and having another four samples at another store?" Le Lait asked.

Although state statutes prohibit liquor stores from giving alcohol to people already intoxicated, monitoring people in a liquor-tasting environment is new to stores.

"They're businesses that haven't served alcohol before and now have to learn how to monitor people's consumption. That poses challenges," Hilling said.

Even with guidelines in place, Le Lait worried police don't have the manpower to enforce them and monitor the "1,500 additional bars, which is what liquor stores are becoming," Le Lait said.

Issues over liquor-tasting guidelines and enforcement will have to be ironed out in the next few weeks as the City Council attempts to form its own liquor-tasting policy.

City staff will bring the issue before the Steamboat Springs City Council for a first reading in mid-July, and the public can comment on it at the second reading in early August, Jordan said.

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