DUPAGE COUNTY, Illinois – Following several fatal alcohol-related traffic crashes in the area, DuPage County’s top law enforcement official is promising to push for a crackdown on area bars that overserve patrons and then do nothing as their customers amble out the door to the parking lot.
DuPage State’s Atty. Joseph Birkett said he plans to formulate a strategy to better enforce local ordinances on over-serving when he meets with the county’s chiefs of police in an annual gathering this fall.
Also in the works is the organization of a local committee of prosecutors, public defenders and judges that will review the state’s DUI provisions this spring–from bail guidelines to the sentencing structure.
In an interview this week, Birkett said liquor commissioners in DuPage towns should know when a person arrested for DUI can be traced to a bar in their town and bars that are repeatedly identified by police and prosecutors should face fines and suspensions of their liquor licenses.
Holding bars more accountable is not the answer to the DUI problem, Birkett said, but it could be a key component in a new push to keep intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel.
“If we have knowledge or information [about an establishment], we should enforce the law,” he said. “When we are able to backtrack and know when a person has been sitting in an establishment for hours being overserved . . . we should bring that to a local liquor commissioner for possible suspension.
“It might not be a suspension every time, but we have to wake them up.”
The severity of any punishment should depend on a history of violations, said Birkett, who also has pushed for tougher sentencing guidelines for repeat DUI offenders.
Area police leaders and liquor commissioners contacted Tuesday supported the initiative, but some bar owners urged caution.
Many DuPage towns have DUI notification plans in place that inform bar owners and liquor commissioners when a DUI offender points to a business as the place they visited before driving. Those running the programs were quick to point out the benefits and limitations of the initiatives.
Downers Grove notifies its commission if police making a DUI arrest link a local establishment to their case, said Carol Conforti, an assistant village attorney and liaison to the liquor commission.
She said one licensee that presented a repeat problem was confronted during its liquor license renewal hearing and agreed to send its employees to a class on recognizing intoxication.
“We do advise these businesses if they get a number of DUIs,” Conforti said. “And there can be fines or suspensions or non-renewals of licenses if we think it’s a major problem.”
But Conforti said those who handle such programs recognize that most of the information authorities rely on is coming from the alleged offenders themselves.
“The problem with this type of notification problem is that you’re talking to an intoxicated individual who you don’t know to be telling the truth,” she said. “It can be kind of difficult to pinpoint one establishment.”
Bar owners operating under such programs agreed. Jim Montesantos, owner and president of the Founder’s Hill Brewery and Pub in Downers Grove, said many people stopped for DUI tell police they’ve been drinking at a local bar to avoid telling an arresting officer they’ve actually driven some distance while intoxicated.
Montesantos said he’s in favor of raising awareness but said more information is needed before punishing bars.
“You can’t really trust information from these people, so I’d hate to see the sanctions just come off that,” he said. “It’s still unproven in my mind.”
Other owners had a different concern. John Wissel, who runs the York Tavern near Oak Brook, said the state’s blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent for drivers represents a gray area.
“Depending on your body weight, that can be two drinks in two hours,” Wissel said. “You’re legally drunk, but is that overserving? If you’re in a crash, is that the bar owner’s responsibility?”
Both the Illinois Restaurant Association and the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association on Tuesday promised to review any new proposal from county law enforcement.
Another hurdle would be the sharing of information across town lines.
In each of the last three major DuPage cases that resulted in reckless homicide charges for allegedly drunken drivers, those charged were involved in wrecks in towns that were different from those where the drivers had been drinking.
Elmhurst Mayor Tom Marcucci said he would support any plan that would result in more information sharing. In most DuPage towns, the mayor or village president acts as head of the local liquor commission and has broad powers of enforcement. County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom handles unincorporated zones.
Marcucci said most DuPage leaders take their job controlling liquor seriously. He said he would support suspensions for violators.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Maybe not on the first offense, but definitely if we noticed a pattern.”
Addison Police Chief Mel Mack said he would support a broader-based effort to share information. He said his department puts together an annual summary for the Addison liquor commission that lists DUI offenders and the bar or tavern they allegedly drove from.
“Our commission has no problem calling a bar owner into a meeting to confront them or putting their license on a probationary status,” he said.
Naperville Mayor George Pradel said that he suspended one establishment’s liquor license for more than 30 days two years ago for overserving.
The business had been cited repeatedly, Pradel said, and faced the tough punishment after a patron left the bar intoxicated and was involved in a serious crash.
Naperville Police Chief David Dial said his department provides a monthly report on DUI information. Most bar owners, he said, are responsible people who don’t want their employees serving alcohol to patrons until they stumble out the front door, but he said those who allow the practice should face harsher penalties.
“There has to be something else we can do,” said Dial, who added he was horrified by the recent string of crashes, including one that took the lives of a mother and father, and the man’s parents. “We don’t need another headline that says, `Family of 4 killed by another drunk driver.’ That’s absurd.”