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Western Pa. police try to nip drunken driving in the bar

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 10:43 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
People stand outside of The Saloon along Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon on Saturday evening, November 3, 2012. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

Mt. Lebanon is not the place to stumble out of the bar and into the street.

Police say they will wait outside bars at closing time on weekends, stopping anyone who attempts to get into the driver's seat while drunk or who appears intoxicated behind the wheel.

They also will stop people who, even though on foot, appear impaired enough to meet the requirements of a public drunkenness charge, a summary offense that carries a fine between $25 and $300.

They recently charged a Mt. Lebanon school board member with public drunkenness after attempting to first turn him over to someone at his house, they said.

At least some patrons of the community's watering holes say Mt. Lebanon police make their point.

“This isn't an area I'd target for some public drunking,” said Jesse Anderson, 26, who has a home in West Mifflin but also stays with a girlfriend in Mt. Lebanon. “This is a bad area to come through if you've been drinking.”

Mt. Lebanon's tactics — or at least the department's openness about what it calls proactive policing — appear unusual among other suburban communities.

Some say they lack the manpower to justify sitting outside of bars, or just don't have enough bars to warrant policing them closely.

“We monitor the bars,” said Aspinwall Police Chief John Sabol, who said the borough's bars generally do not pose problems. “But we're not sitting out there hovering over people.”

Several staff members and patrons at The Saloon on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon, who declined to give their names, said officers will walk through the establishment some nights to make themselves known, will wait in cars on Washington Road or in the bar's rear parking lot to pick up anyone obviously intoxicated and attempting to drive, or grab those who are walking out severely intoxicated.

Police spokesman Lt. Aaron Lauth said the officers do so to prevent crime, not to simply make arrests. Police often try to get someone who's sober to take the person home or call a cab before handing out citations, he said.

Police said that's what they tried to do last month in the case of school board member Scott Goldman. Police said he was walking home from a Washington Road bar Oct. 27 when a neighbor called police, Lauth said.

Officers found Goldman walking in the middle of a residential street and took him home. When no one answered the door, they took him to the station and cited him. Goldman did not respond to calls for comment. Court records show he has not entered a plea or scheduled a court date.

Lauth said he thinks that police in towns with bars who are not seeking out drunks “especially at closing time, (are) not practicing the essential premises of proactive or problem-solving policing.”

“We believe that our ability to show a police presence near bars at closing time is an asset to the community, not a detriment,” he added.

Fox Chapel Police Chief David Laux, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, said state law allows officers to cite a person for public drunkenness if he or she appears to be under the influence of alcohol to a point that the person is a danger to him or herself, or is annoying to others.

Defense attorney Dan Konieczka of the Downtown law firm DeLuca, Ricciuti & Konieczka, said he hadn't heard of Mt. Lebanon's practice before but said it is preferable to waiting until someone gets behind the wheel or gets hurt.

“The fact that Mt. Lebanon is being proactive, and interjecting themselves before people are driving, that's actually a good thing,” Konieczka said. “It's not going to cost a person a drunk-driving offense.”

According to crime statistics collected by state police, Mt. Lebanon has handed out 42 public drunkenness citations this year, up from 41 in all of 2011.

That number is down from 51 citations in 2010 and 49 in 2009.

Mt. Lebanon for 2012 to date has the 13th-highest number of drunkenness citations among Allegheny County's suburban jurisdictions, falling between Tarentum's 44 citations and Munhall's 39.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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