Utah DUI arrests decline despite looser liquor law

The Associated Press/October 11, 2010

Opening Utah's bars to the public didn't result in an increase in drunk driving arrests.

A report summary reviewed Monday by The Associated Press shows there were nearly 400 fewer driving under the influence arrests since the state eliminated a requirement that bar patrons fill out an application and pay a fee to enter.

The report covered the fiscal year that ended June 30 and will be presented to state lawmakers next week.

The total number of arrests was 15,285, with about half of those being made by municipal law enforcement agencies.

The decline in DUIs followed the most sweeping changes to Utah's liquor laws in 40 years, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders. It also came as more people are choosing to drink at home during a weak economy.

Some conservative lawmakers and morals groups in the heavily Mormon state had contended that private club memberships were necessary to keep minors out of bars and reduce driving under the influence.

They feared that allowing someone to walk into a bar without filling out a form once a year would lead to an explosion of alcohol consumption.

Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control statistics showed alcohol sales to Utah bars has risen about 1 percent in the past year, while sales to customers for home consumption jumped about 4 percent.

The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice report also showed a decline in the percentage of minors arrested for driving under the influence, from 10 percent in the 2009 fiscal year to 9 percent in the 2010 fiscal year.

The change to the law was made last July to boost the state's tourism industry and make Utah appear a little less odd to businesses and people considering a move to the state.

Utah was the only state in the country that regulated its bars as private clubs.

A separate membership costing at least $4 for three weeks and $12 a year was required for every private club. Tourists would frequently leave bars after being told they had to buy a membership - sometimes in addition to paying a cover charge.

Dave Morris, owner of the bar Piper Down in Salt Lake City, was one of the primary proponents of eliminating the private club system. He said his food sales have gone up 18 percent since the change, and customers no longer feel like they have to drink all night at a single bar.

"We weren't trying to reinvent the wheel here. We were just trying to normalize the state a little bit and make it more attractive to tourists and treat our own citizens a little more like adults by using rules and standards that work excellent in 49 other states," he said.

The private club system was developed primarily as a way to shield members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from being exposed to alcohol after the defeat of an initiative in 1968 that would have allowed the sale of liquor drinks in restaurants.

The changes to Utah's system came only after church officials said they wouldn't oppose them and lawmakers agreed to strengthen penalties for driving under the influence.

About 60 percent of Utah residents and more than 80 percent of state lawmakers belong to the Mormon church, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol and has always helped shape alcohol policy in the state.

As part of the agreement, Utah is now the only state to require bars to electronically scan the identification card of anyone who appears to be younger than 35 before they're allowed to enter. Bars are required to electronically store the information obtained from the ID, including name and address, for inspection by law enforcement for seven days.

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