Bar owners leery of ID-card scans meant to cut DUIs

Published January 29, 2009 9:53 pm
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A plan to do away with Utah's private club law and replace it with electronic identity checks has the backing of Utah bar owners.

But they're troubled that the card scans could gather thousands of names and addresses of their patrons and dump them into a law-enforcement database.

Bob Brown, owner of the downtown club Cheers To You, said the solution legislators are proposing is worse than the problem they're trying to fix.

"The private club law in Utah is a nuisance. You start invading people's privacy and now you've got real problems," he said.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is proposing the idea as part of a comprehensive liquor law reform bill he is crafting. He said giving law enforcement access to the bar records would help police investigate drunken-driving accidents and is an essential part of his plan.

"This is better than the private club model we have now," said Valentine.

David Morris, owner of the Salt Lake City pub Piper Down, isn't so sure.

"With scanners and databases and scary stuff like that, I'd just rather leave it the way it is," Morris said.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has argued since he took office in 2005 that Utah's private club laws needed to be done away with to "normalize" the state's liquor laws and boost tourism. He also does not want a central database.

"The governor isn't interested in having a statewide database that becomes something the state has to manage," said the governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley. "He thinks keeping records in the clubs [is enough] … if anything happens, the officers can go back there and search the information."

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is planning to sponsor a bill in the House in line with what Huntsman envisions.

Last month, Valentine went on a bar crawl with former Rep. Steve Barth, the lobbyist for several private clubs, to check out license scanners. Valentine said he was a skeptic, because those he saw didn't work.

Since then, he's visited with companies that sell scanners and thinks that the electronic verification could be beneficial.

Under his plan, everyone entering a club, whether they're 21 or 101, would have to swipe their identification to verify it is genuine. The patron's name, address, driver license number and date of birth would be logged into the database, along with the time and place they were drinking.

That information would be saved for somewhere between 10 days and 30 days -- Valentine hasn't decided yet -- and then be purged.

Valentine said the scanning would help cut down on underage drinking and could give investigators a tool, if a patron leaves the bar and causes an accident, to show where and when the person was drinking.

It could also be used in traffic stops. If an officer suspected a driver might have been drinking, the officer could run the license and determine if the driver was coming from a bar

The database and its management would be paid by a fee assessed to bar owners, which they could recoup through a cover charge or by raising prices, Valentine said.

Tom Guinney, the owner of the Gastronomy restaurants, including The Oyster Bar, says he supports replacing private clubs with electronic scanners -- but not if his bartenders have no discretion on who to scan and not if there is a database gathering the information.

"Do you think any rational individual would not think that's intrusive?" he asked. "That's intrusive. There's no question about it."

Michael Jerome, who was having a drink at Junior's Tavern in downtown Salt Lake City, felt the same way.

"Why do people have to have your personal information to go drink?" he asked. "You're talking about identity theft and everything nowadays. How many people do you want having your [information]?"

Art Brown, president of the Salt Lake County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he would like to see the card scans with the central database on top of the existing private club laws.

Brown said that private clubs cut down on people going from one bar to the next and limit access and availability to alcohol.

"The idea of going to open bars is certainly not one on my radar screen, because I'm not going to put more drunk drivers on the road," he said.

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Other planned provisions

Sen. John Valentine's proposal for comprehensive liquor law change contains other provisions. It would:

Limit liquor permits for convention halls to facilities of 30,000 square feet or more. Currently, the standard is 600 square feet or more.

Create a "resort permit," which could allow a ski resort or other area with multiple bars, clubs or restaurants to get one permit.

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