Taking the bottle away from dangerous drunks

When someone gets caught drinking and driving, the first response is to take away his license: his driving license, that is. The “license” to drink &#8212 legal permission to buy and consume alcohol in unlimited quantities &#8212 is taken to be irrevocable.

But why?

Someone who drinks and drives may not be a bad driver when sober, but we know he’s a bad citizen when drunk. Probably, sober, he even knows that he shouldn’t drink and drive. Once drunk, however, that knowledge leaves, along with his fine motor control, impulse control, and capacity to handle divided-attention tasks.

So here’s a modest proposal: If someone is convicted of driving drunk, or beating someone up drunk, or spraying swastikas on gravestones drunk, or if he’s simply one of the relatively small number of badly behaved drinkers whom the police pick up time after time for drunk & disorderly (in any jurisidiction, something like a tenth of one percent of the population, consisting of chronic d&d arrestees, accounts for something like fifteen percent of the arrests) &#8212 if, I say, someone shows by his behavior that he is either a menace or a major public nuisance when he gets a skinful &#8212 then why not revoke his drinking license? (No, the masculine pronoun here is not a mere artifact of grammar; like most crime, crime committed under the influence is overwhelmingly a male problem.)

How would it work? The “personal prohibition” imagined here couldn’t plausibly by enforced by the state against the individual, so it, like the (far less justified) ban on drinking under some arbitrary age, would have to be enforced by sellers of alcoholic beverages, required to do so by the terms of their licenses. To do so, sellers would have to verify that each buyer is in fact legally eligible to drink, just as they now have to verify that each buyer is of legal age to drink. And the same document now used to “card” young-looking drinkers could be used to enforce the ban on drinking by those who make their drinking a problem for the rest of us.

California, for the convenience of alcohol sellers, issues to those over 21 drivers’ licenses with the bearer’s photo in full-face, and issues to those under 21 drivers’ licenses with the bearer’s photo in profile. Similarly, someone who loses his drinking license for some period of time as a result of an alcohol-related conviction could have his existing driver’s license taken away and receive a new license, with some marking showing that it is not also a drinker’s license. (Most motor vehicle registries issue a “non-driver’s license,” also called a “personal identification card,” for those who cannot or do not wish to have a license to drive but need a piece of plastic to show who they are and how old they are: not least for the purpose of being able to buy alcohol.)

Such a system would have good deterrent effects &#8212 loss of drinking privileges, and in particular the ability to drink in bars with one’s friends, might be quite fearsome to some offenders and yet not at all hard for a judge to impose &#8212 and good incapacitative effects as well, insofar as reduced drinking by problem drinkers translates into reduced problems for everyone else.

Obvious problems:

1. The booze industry, and in particular the bar-and-restaurant trade, would hate it. Heavy drinking is their business, and while most heavy drinkers aren’t problem drinkers, such a system would cost them some of their best customers.

2. Having to “card” everyone,rather than just those fortunate enough to look young would be something of an inconvenience for sellers and buyers of alcohol alike. (Though given the proportion of transactions involving credit cards, it’s hard to see how the added inconvenience would be especially great.)

3. If there were enough disqualified persons, they might constitute a big enough market to support illegal production (“moonshining”) or illegal sales outlets (“speakeasies”). I doubt this would be much of a problem, given the importance of brand names in the alcoholic-beverage trade and the difficulty of running a speakeasy in the absence of truly systemic police corruption. The key to controlling this problem would be to limit the number of persons disqualified from drinking to a few million at a time: a small proportion of the total market for alcohol, but (if properly selected) a substantial portion of the alcohol problem.

4. Some people legally allowed to buy alcohol would be willing to procure it for their disqualified friends, thus partially frustrating the intent of the law. That happens now with underage drinking. The problem might be smaller insofar as the idea that drunken drivers and drunken assailants ought not drink probably has wider and deeper social support than the idea that 20-year-old ought not drink.

5. Some people legally disqualified from drinking would secure false identification, just as underage drinkers now do. That would partly defeat the purpose of the law. It would also contribute to the market in fake IDs, which is not a trivial problem. If the proposed policy were combined with the abolition of the drinking age, this disadvantage would be more than offset.

Update: Guy Andrew Hall at Rook’s Rant reports that Minnesota has such a policy, which it tries to enforce on the drinkers rather than on the sellers. Predictably, it’s mostly a dead letter. “Mithras” at Fables of the Reconstruction wonders if I’m serious (yes, I am) and lists some objections, including a due process argument I can’t track at all. Atrios agrees. Kevin Drum (mostly) disagrees: he’s worried about a “slippery slope” toward making a driver’s license an all-purpose ID. (It seems to me that horse is already out of the barn; I just got back from the Bay Area, where you can’t make a credit-card purchase without showing a driver’s license.)

Lots of comments on Eschaton and Political Animal, many of which, like “Mithras,” dance past the point that the proposed drinker’s license revocation would be a (possible) part of a criminal ssentence, imposed by a judge after a verdict or plea. If drunk driving or assault and battery are good enough reasons to take someone’s liberty away entirely by putting him behind bars, objecting to banning that person from drinking seems a lot like swallowing camels and straining at gnats.

Update Jim Leitzel at Vice Squad proposes an alternative: an ankle bracelet that provides continuous remote monitoring of alcohol consumption by measuring the alcohol that transpires through the pores of the skin. Clever, though at $12/day it would have to be reserved for fairly serious cases. Of course the price would probably come down substantially if hundreds of thousands of people rather than dozens were being monitored.

Per a reader’s suggestion, I’m including a link to the alcohol chapter of my book Against Excess, which includes a discussion on this topic.