EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Nov. 28, 2007 -- The state of New Jersey has a question for motorists stopped on suspicion of drunken driving: Where did you have your last drink?
Police must send the answers to state investigators looking for bars and restaurants where libations flow too freely.
New Jersey is the latest jurisdiction to adopt the tactic. This year, Texas started a smaller program, and Boulder, Colo., used last-drink data to get bars to be more careful about whom they serve. At year's end, the Washington State Patrol will publish its annual list of top "last drink" locations.
Jerry Fischer, director of the New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Control agency, says the "Last Drink Initiative" allows his 22 investigators to cover the state's 10,000 licensed establishments more efficiently by focusing on watering holes repeatedly named as a last port of call.
"We've created an electronic database that allows us to identify problem locations that we otherwise would not have seen," he says. "Now we can see the patterns."
New Jersey prohibits the sale of alcohol to anyone who appears intoxicated, and the ABC can revoke or suspend a license or levy a fine. Since the state program began in September, the agency has received the names of more than 1,000 businesses and compiled a Top 10 list of those mentioned most frequently.
New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram told police specifically to ask whether the driver was drinking at a commercial establishment and, if so, to get the place's name and address.
Fischer said ABC undercover investigators recently visited a nightclub that had been named by eight motorists arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. They found signs on tables advertising a two-for-one sale on kamikazes, drinks that typically contain an ounce of vodka and an ounce of triple sec liquor.
Such a promotion is illegal because "it's designed just to get people drunk," Fischer said. "Unless we got lucky, we would never have stumbled in there."
In another case, state regulators found one restaurant had been named as a last drinking destination in seven stops in four towns — a pattern that might have been invisible to local police without the state reporting program.
Drivers don't have to tell police where they were drinking. If they give a location other than a business — such as a friend's home — the information is not turned over to the ABC.
The data gathering worries some New Jersey bar and restaurant owners.
"I'm sick over this," says Rocco Pasquinucci, owner of Rockafella's Cafe in East Rutherford. "If I'm named, I can't even clear myself."
Pasquinucci says drivers often give police false information. He says a 20-year-old driver got into an accident a few weeks ago and told the arresting officer he'd been drinking at Rockafella's. Pasquinucci says he spoke to his bouncer, checked a video surveillance camera on the front door and saw that the man had been turned away.
Bob Scerbo, owner of The Exchange in Rockaway, says he has warned his staff about the new policy: "Say a guy gets stopped and he's been drinking at Smiles go-go bar. Does he want his wife or girlfriend to find out? No. So he says he's been drinking at my place."
Fischer, the ABC director, says such fears are unfounded:
The agency uses the last-drink data only to steer investigators to apparent problem spots, not as evidence to justify license revocations or fines.
Places are inspected only if they are named repeatedly as a last stop. He said the ABC has a list of 10 top targets, all of which have at least five hits in the 1,000-entry last-drink database.
When inspectors visit, they can charge establishments only with violations they actually see.
Richard Dorchak, owner of the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell and chairman of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, says his members' worries stem from the initiative's novelty, as much as anything: "Places have never been pinpointed like this before."
New Jersey police arrest about 32,000 drivers a year on suspicion of drunken driving, and more than 30% of accidents in the state involve allegedly intoxicated drivers, according to the attorney general's office.
The "last drink" tactic is still relatively rare. Stacy Drakeford, president of the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association, a group of alcohol enforcement officers, says it could become more common because of concerns about drunken driving and underage drinking.
One model is Washington state, which has a data-entry field for "last drink" on its computerized breathalyzers and publicizes establishments most often named. Last year's leader? The Romeo Bar & Grill in Bremerton, with 95 "DUI contacts"— 40 more than any other establishment.
Owner Jack Johnson says he encourages intoxicated patrons to take a cab (he pays one to wait outside), to drive home with a sober driver, or to accept a ride from him or a member of his staff.
Publication of the state list has cut business 40%, he says: "People are afraid to drink here because they think they're going to get busted."