Big Brother Might Be Watching You Booze

Utah legislators propose database to track who visits bars.

Feb. 5, 2009— -- The governor of Utah has two problems with a State Senate proposal to scan the IDs of everyone who visits a bar in the state and make that database available to law enforcement officials.

For starters, it is an "Orwellian" breach of privacy, he said. And second, it makes his state look kooky.

"I think that would enhance the oddness of our laws," Gov. Jon Huntsman told The Associated Press. "I think that for most people that is a rather frightening, almost Orwellian, proposition."

Utah already has the strictest alcohol laws in the country, requiring tipplers to become members of any bar they patronize by paying a small fee and filling out a brief application. Bars in Utah are open to the public, but they're still classified as private clubs and only members and sponsored guests may enter.

In principle, the decades-old statute is intended to limit the number of places one would go to drink alcohol. In practice, according to the governor and others, it's little more than a cover charge and a deterrent to out-of-state visitors.

In an effort to boost the state's $6 billion a year tourism industry, Huntsman, a Republican, at the behest of bar and restaurant owners, asked the state legislature to review the club law and consider replacing it with electronic scanners that could determine if a patron was under the legal drinking age of 21 years.

In doing so, some lawmakers from his own party realized that the information obtained by those scanners could be used by the police to investigate drunken driving incidents and proposed creating a database to store that information.

The proposal has met with opposition from the governor, bar owners, civil liberties groups and drinkers who believe it encroaches on individual privacy.

"If we're going to have a database, I think that's great but it needs to be open to the public," said Jay Chambers, 33, of Salt Lake City. "I want to see everyone, every legislator's record of what bars they've been to."

Chambers said "because of the silly membership laws" he belonged to about a dozen bars, also known as private clubs.

There are fewer than 400 taverns and bars in Utah, and nearly 1,100 restaurants are licensed to serve alcohol. The Utah Hospitality Association has lobbied the governor to reconsider the membership law.

"The current system is antiquated and needs to be replaced," said Lisa Marcy, the lawyer and spokeswoman for the association that represents bar owners.

"Instead of trying to replace the system with something better, the Senate is looking to replace it with something dumber," she said.

"[State Senate President Michael] Waddoups wants a state database that would keep track of people. He doesn't just want to mandate it for clubs but in restaurants and anywhere alcohol is served. What's next, tracking people every time they use their library card?" she said.

Waddoups said he wants IDs scanned at each of those places to determine that drinkers are of age. A database would help police investigate drunken driving cases.

No bill is yet on the table, so questions of how long information would be stored and how it would be tapped remain unanswered.

"We're looking at all kinds of options to meet three goals: keeping alcohol away from underage drinkers, minimizing overconsumption and trying to avoid drunken driving," the senator told ABC

Waddoups said information would likely be stored for several hours and that only people's locations, not what or how much they were drinking or who they were with, would be collected.

He said he disagreed with the governor's assertion that a database was akin to Big Brother and would fuel a perception that Utah was weird.

"If we're tracking people for purposes of seeing what they're drinking, then the governor is right, but it if trying to ensure less underage drinking and less DUIs, then I disagree that this is Big Brother. It's just a public safety tool," he said.

Utah's unique alcohol legislation stems in part from the state's large Mormon population. About 60 percent of the state's residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which discourages drinking alcohol. Some 80 percent to 90 percent of the state's legislators belong to the LDS Church.

The Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports some sort of monitoring system of club goers but not necessarily a state-run database.

Under state dram shop laws, bars that overserve alcohol to drunken patrons involved in hit-and-run incidents can be sued by a victim or a victim's family.

"What's important to MADD is not so much the database as much as it is assurance that a record is kept so someone can make a dram shop liability case," said Art Brown the chapter's spokesman.