The Nightly Migration

Do Canyon County's conservative liquor laws cut drunks off, or just put them on the road to Boise?


Years ago, the state of Idaho gave its counties the power to regulate their own saloons. It's up to the county government to decide, for instance, what days bars can sell liquor, and what hours they can operate. This power has met with different interpretations in the Treasure Valley. In Owyhee and Ada counties, closing time for bars is at 2 a.m. Not so in Canyon County, where last call is strictly at 1 a.m.

Canyon County Commission Chairman Matt Beebe told BW his constituency, and his fellow lawmakers, keep liquor laws where they are due their conservative values. But their conservatism does more than close bars--it creates a one-hour gap in which Canyon County is dry, but bars in neighboring Ada and Owyhee are still serving. With Meridian and Boise just a short drive away, bartenders and barflies in Canyon County say that hopping county lines in pursuit of more booze isn't just an option. For many, it's a ritual.

Izzy Madrigal, bartender at the Dutch Goose in Caldwell, said he shouts last call at around 12:30. But about that time, he's aware that many of his customers get the notion to hop in their cars and drive into neighboring counties for a few extra minutes of drinking.

Michael Widner of Caldwell is one such patron. He said he has driven the 25 miles into Meridian after Caldwell and Nampa have closed taps "several times" to buy beer. And he says it's not just him. "I'm pretty sure everyone here has done it at least one or two times," he said.

Cheryl Wunder, who runs the Sweetwater Saloon in Caldwell, agrees with Widner. She said not only is she aware of the problem of a nightly drunk migration, she had also driven intoxicated across county lines--albeit during her long gone "reckless youth phase."

Caleb Crowell, another bargoer in Caldwell, said, "It's a big problem, people driving drunk between the counties." Crowell said in his mind, the answer was to extend Canyon County's last call to match its neighbors. He said he has signed a petition specifically to do that, since in his opinion, the county law "causes wrecks due to the ignorance of drunk people."

Whether Crowell's fears of more drunk drivers are true is up for interpretation. A perusal of the last several months of DUI arrests on the Ada County Sheriff's Department arrest page showed only about one in seven recent DUI arrestees coming from Canyon County. But Lynn Hightower with the Boise Police Department said that the number could have more to do with Boise's "cultural draw," concerts and sports events than its later last call.

"Downtown Boise is an entertainment attraction for people from surrounding counties," Hightower said. The Boise Police department largely catches people driving while intoxicated on main thoroughfares leading outside the entertainment districts, she explained, which could be both a correlation that people are coming to Boise for entertainment, or to drink outside the restrictive county laws. She also said that while DUI arrests have been increasing in Boise in recent years, the change can partly be attributed to the department's DUI-specific patrol team, referred to as the STEP, which assigns six officers specifically to identifying and arresting people driving under the influence.

Tina Yore, spokeswoman for the Ada County sheriff's department, said county officers aren't willing to peg the county's liquor laws as a contributing factor to people driving drunk between the counties. She acknowledged that the hypothesis seemed logical, but said that without looking at statistics, "it's not the primary factor of DUIs between county lines."

On the Canyon County side of the line, Lt. Dana Maxfield of the Canyon County sheriff's department wouldn't comment, except to say that there is "not enough data out there to support this idea" of cross county drunk driving, and that he hadn't heard of the phenomenon otherwise.

Among the bargoers who say they witness the cross-county migration regularly, the answer to cutting out the problem--whether law enforcement acknowledges it or not--was resounding: make last call an hour later.

They aren't the first to propose the idea. While Canyon Commissioner Beebe wasn't willing to admit a correlation between the laws and drunk driving--citing, like law enforcement officials, a lack of sufficient data--he said he recently asked his fellow county commissioners, Dave Ferdinand and Robert Vasquez, about allowing voters to decide if the county's liquor laws should be more lax.

"It was not well received," he recalled. And Beebe said he didn't feel comfortable simply changing the law "with the stoke of a pen," even though it would be allowed by state regulations. He said still he wants voters to decide whether the county's liquor laws should be changed.

About five years ago, Beebe said, the Canyon County bar owner's association approached the commissioners asking to extend last call hours to 2 a.m., and the ensuing meetings were filled with those both for and against of the proposal. To settle the issue democratically, Beebe said the commissioners agreed to have the matter on a ballot only if the association could gather enough signatures on a petition. He said that never happened. "My position is that just one of the three commissioners can't say to allow the Sunday sales [of liquor] and to extend the hours because of this conservative constituency."

Beebe said in all likelihood, the liquor law won't change unless it goes on the ballot, and May 2006 is the soonest that would happen. In the meantime, all law enforcement officials interviewed said they'll look into the matter further.