HOUSTON -- It should be a sobering fact —drunk drivers kill more people in Harris County per capita, than any other similar-sized county in the nation.
But the I-Team discovered something that could be driving up those numbers—in Harris County there hardly are ever any consequences for bars who over serve a customer who is visibly drunk , even when that customer then drives and injures, or kills someone. This, despite the fact that bartenders can be charged with a misdemeanor for doing so, and the bars themselves can lose their liquor license.
Chris Michie knows about the lack of enforcement the hard way.
"Every day I miss her," he said about his mother Lisa Gaitan. In December 2005, she was killed by Jason Sheedy, who left a bar so stumbling drunk he drove the wrong way on the freeway.
"If they wouldn't have served him as much as they served him, she'd still be here," Michie said.
Sheedy was convicted of intoxication manslaughter and is serving prison time.
But what happened to that bar? Nothing happened from the state agency in charge of enforcing liquor laws, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Part of the problem is how many resources the TABC has historically assigned to these sorts of investigations.
"Me. I'm it,” said TABC Agent Chuck Cornelius, who sits on a Vehicular Crimes Task Force at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
And Cornelius not only handles all of Harris County, but Galveston County as well. Collectively, his responsibilities cover nearly 14,000 liquor licenses. So the I-Team had to ask:
I-Team: “Can you keep up?”
Cornelius: “The answer is no, just the sheer numbers of fatalities that happen.”
In fact, over the past five years, 693 drunk drivers were charged with injuring or killing someone in Harris County, but only 18 bartenders were charged for serving a drunk. What’s more, half of those cases were dismissed.
“Is it going to happen? Yes, they're going to sell to intoxicated people,” said TABC Lt. Harry Schreffler. “Are we going to be able to catch every one of them? Definitely not."
And what about the bars themselves? The TABC can fine, suspend, or even yank a bar's license if they over serve, but over the past five years, that's only happened 22 times. That, despite the bumper crop of drunken driving accidents here year in and year out.
I-Team: "Does that keep the public safe?”
Lt. Schreffler: “I don't believe that's the safest way to do business, no."
Consider the recent case of George Pugh, who was run over by a suspected drunk driver in December 2008, as he was walking into a Galleria-area hotel.
"I found out at the hospital that I have a broken left shoulder, I have a broken left hand, I have a broken right ankle, I have a broken left foot," Pugh said.
"The person that ran over my client, his wife said he was too drunk to drive," said Jim West, Pugh’s attorney.
So where did the alcohol come from? West claims it was from the hotel bar, which he said clearly over served the driver.
"He could have been stopped at any point by various people and he wasn't," West said.
And so far, West said nothing has happened to the bar, and he blames the TABC.
"Something should have been investigated for the bar and there hasn't been any investigation," West said.
Perhaps that's because of one of the agencies biggest priorities, has historically been money. Besides going after bars for serving drunks, it’s the TABC's job to be the “muscle” for the liquor industry--pursuing bars when they fail to pay their tab with liquor wholesalers and distributors.
I-Team: “Why should a state agency be in the business of helping private enterprise collect its money?”
Lt. Schreffler: “That's what the law says."
But that law results in lopsided enforcement. In the five years where the TABC cited only 22 bars for over serving in Harris County, it wrote up nearly 986 violations for bars not paying their bar bill.
"We wish the TABC would spend some more time on some of the real meat-and-potato type of enforcement," said Bill Lewis, Public Policy Liaison for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in Texas.
"Who loses on this is the public, is everybody on the road who is with the people who are over served at the bars," Lewis said.
Turns out, the TABC was much more aggressive a few years back--sending undercover agents into bars and arresting both bartenders for over serving, and patrons for public intoxication. But the 2006 crackdown, known as Operation Last Call, didn't last long. Public outcry and pressure from lawmakers shut it down after a couple of months.
The I-Team investigation continues Tuesday at 10 p.m. with a look at something else Texas bars have in their corner. It’s some one-of-a-kind-legal loophole that lets them off the hook when they over serve, and someone dies.
by 11 News Chief Investigative Reporter, Jeremy Rogalski