Haines Borough Police said this week they will pursue enforcement of an Alaska law that prohibits bar employees from selling alcohol to drunk patrons following a violent pummeling at a downtown bar last week.
Interim police chief Simon Ford said police will approach bar owners and employees to review laws about selling alcohol to clearly intoxicated people. Under Alaska law, employees may not “sell, give, or barter alcoholic beverages to a drunken person.”
If the problem persists despite the warnings, police will be compelled to issue citations, Ford said.
“We’re really concerned about this, and it seems like it’s becoming a pattern and not just an isolated incident every once in a while. We walk in and everybody’s pretty liquored up. We understand (business owners) are trying to make money selling alcohol, but there are parameters and you have to follow the parameters.”
Around 2 a.m. on July 10, police and an ambulance crew responded to a downtown bar after a man and woman – both intoxicated – were assaulted in the parking lot. Following an argument, the man began punching the woman repeatedly in the face, pinned her to the ground, and continued to hit her.
Patrons who saw the assault pulled the man off the woman and began kicking him “until he stopped moving,” Ford said. What exactly happened is unclear, as everyone involved was drunk, Ford said.
“In the investigation, I felt like I couldn’t get a credible witness out of maybe 10 people that I interviewed, because of their level of intoxication. It just leads you to think that they’re being over-served,” he said.
The man was medevaced to Juneau with serious injuries, including a broken cheekbone, and as of Tuesday was still hospitalized. The woman was treated at the clinic and released.
For lack of credible witnesses, Ford said he was unsure anyone would be charged.
Local bar owners this week expressed their opinion on the impending enforcement. Christy Tengs Fowler, owner of the Pioneer Bar, said she is fine with the decision.
“It is the law that we are not allowed to serve drunk people, so we would just be upholding the law the same way we always do. All of my bartenders have been instructed not to serve drunk people,” Tengs Fowler said.
Harbor Bar owner Mike Ward said cops should have been enforcing the law all along, though he doesn’t understand the current need for a change in policy. “No laws have changed. I don’t know why they feel like they have to do anything any differently,” Ward said.
Though owners said employees are instructed not to over-serve, 25-year-old Haines resident Joshua Benassi said he has seen local bartenders serve drunk people and he has been served while obviously intoxicated.
“I feel like it’s more the patrons’ responsibility for their own health, but obviously you have to keep the peace and keep people from getting too drunk that they kill each other or put each other in the hospital,” Benassi said.
Benassi said he has seen much worse behavior at bars down south: people puking in bathrooms only to stumble back up to the bar and order another round. “That doesn’t really happen here. I don’t really see people who are hanging on to the bar stool when they are trying to order a drink.”
Visitors rather than residents exhibit much of the problem behavior, he said.
Identifying how a drunk person came to be so intoxicated is difficult, Ford said. Bar customers often travel between establishments, so servers don’t know how much alcohol they’ve already consumed. They will also “pre-game,” or drink at home to avoid spending a lot of money at the bars.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, this person is in this bar, and they’re drunk, so therefore this server over-served them.’ You can’t necessarily draw that conclusion. But you do have to hold the bartender accountable for serving somebody who is drunk,” he said.
Ford said he is hoping after issuing the warnings and review sessions, bartenders and bar owners will start policing themselves. “If not, we’re going to start enforcing this, because it’s out of control in my opinion.”
Under Alaska law, a “drunken person” is defined as “a person whose physical or mental conduct is substantially impaired as a result of the introduction of an alcoholic beverage into the person’s body and who exhibits those plain and easily observed or discovered outward manifestations of behavior commonly known to be produced by the overconsumption of alcoholic beverages.”