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N.J. trying a new way to keep tabs on bars

Suspected drunken drivers stopped by police are being asked where they imbibed.

This holiday season, suspected drunken drivers stopped by police in New Jersey will be asked a question they never have faced:

Where did you have your last drink?

Officials consider the tactic a valuable tool in collecting information on problem bars that serve customers who have gone beyond the limit.

Still, many bar owners don't like the idea of collecting admittedly unscientific information from the intoxicated.

"The law is good, but only if the information they get is true and factual," said Frank Cavallaro, who manages his son's bar, Shady Katie's, in Somerdale. "If someone is intoxicated, they can pick any bar name they want."

Cavallaro is a retired state police trooper, and his son is a police officer. Their bar is a popular hangout for people in their line of work.

"They might name us just because they think the cop will go easy on them," he said.

In August, the state Attorney General authorized police to question suspected drunken drivers who have waived their Miranda rights about where they were drinking.

The state became only the fifth, after Oregon, Washington, Colorado and parts of California, to employ the tactic.

Since then, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has received about 1,500 reports from police, Director Jerry Fischer said.

He said the information does not include the names of the suspected drunken drivers, and the division can use the data only as a guide.

"Contrary to what bar owners are saying, it's not a tool in and of itself," Fischer said. "We go and make a fresh case."

Before the directive, Alcoholic Beverage Control collected information on problem bars only through word of mouth and other tips. Some police departments forwarded information, but drunken drivers from any given bar might end up being arrested in several jurisdictions, Fischer said.

Other times, the division would investigate a bar after a fatal crash.

"Hopefully, we'll go and target these places before someone dies," he said.

There were 224 fatal drunken-driving crashes in New Jersey in 2006, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

It's a problem bar owners recognize.

"It's not like the old days when you could drink all night," said Nancy Andrews, manager at Doc & Joe's Tavern in Gloucester City. "Today, a couple of beers and you're at the limit."

At the Irish Pub, a longtime Atlantic City fixture, employee Bill Hare said he just learned of the new police tactic about two weeks ago.

"Anyone in the car can say anything. And when you're drunk, you usually do," he said. "One bar will have a better name than the others. People could mention that bar because they know it."

Fischer said he understands that drunken drivers could have reasons to lie about where they were drinking, which is why Alcoholic Beverage Control then conducts an independent investigation.

He said several have been launched based on the data. One bar was mentioned 12 times, he said.

"You start seeing 10 and 12 people, you can't say this a conspiracy to get one problem bar," he said.

Cavallaro said his employees often give people who have had too much to drink a ride home.

"You could stop by here on a Saturday or Sunday morning and think the place was filled from all the cars," he said. "But it's cars left from the night before."