NECN INVESTIGATES: Massachusetts Cracking Down on Clubs Overserving Customers

It's a late night as usual for these undercover investigators with the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

"It's frustrating, but you know we have to address it every time until they change their ways," said one investigator who the state has asked us not to identify.

They are in the thick of their annual holiday crackdown - on the lookout for overserving.

"What we end up looking at is people who are clearly intoxicated. People that the bartender should knowingly be able look at and know this person has had too much to drink," said another investigator.

Sometimes they go in undercover and blend in with the crowd. Other times they flash their badges and announce what they’re looking for.

They work from a list called the 24J list. It's the list of bars, clubs and restaurants where drunk drivers told the court they were served alcohol prior to getting behind the wheel and driving under the influence

Within minutes of announcing their arrival at an 18-plus concert at Boston's House of Blues, an investigator spots a man buying beer at the bar and then passing one to another man in the crowd. The second man was allegedly underage, so investigators write up the club for serving alcohol to a minor and make sure the customer has a ride home.

"Our primary interest is getting that person safely home," ABCC Chief Investigator Ted Mahony said. "It's all about preventing injury, preventing tragedies."

House of Blues did not return necn's calls for comment, but Mahony said they were on the 24J list five times last year. According to state data, they have plenty of company. In 2014, the most recent, complete data available, 1,636 drunk drivers said they were last served in bars and restaurants from Abington to Wrentham.

Centerfold's in Worcester, has made the 24J list 3 times so far this year. The night that necn tagged along with ABCC investigators and Worcester Police officers, they stopped a man leaving the strip club who they believed had been overserved and was trying to get behind the wheel. They didn't violate the club because they didn't actually see the man get served, but they did make sure he got into a cab.

"His options were to call his wife or Uber and his wife doesn't know he's here," an investigator said.

Across town at the Riviera Show Club, investigators watched a man who they said showed obvious signs of intoxication. With necn's undercover cameras rolling, he went into a private dance room at the strip club for nearly an hour.

"He wracked up about a $380 tab," Worcester Police Officer Mark Jolin said.

Investigators waited until he came out and then watched the bartender serve him another drink. The strip club has been on the 24J list thre times this year. The club declined to comment, but staff did call the man a cab. Said the cabbie, "His car was here two days last time."

Investigators consider any bar that makes the list multiple times, year after year, a top offender.

"Sometimes they don't care, in my opinion, until they really get hit hard," said one investigator. "And like I said - until that happens, then they'll start changing their ways."

If the bars are violated by the ABCC they typically will have a hearing before the state board. Penalties range from fines to shutting down the bar.

The Varsity in Worcester was busted several months ago. The ABCC found the bar responsible for a cocktail of violations - from serving minors to overcrowding. Inspectors found they had six times the amount of allowed people inside and suspended their license for 52 days.

"The few that don't get it that continue to put people on the roads to potentially get hurt, they need repeated visits, they need to have enough enforcement present so that they will eventually stop," the ABCC's Mahony said.

Mahony said the program - considered a national model - is working. He points to bars that were in the double digits when the program first started that have since seen their numbers plummet. He credited ABCC training of bar staff and the nagging presence of his investigators for those improvements.

Waxy's Pub in Foxboro was one of the bars on Mahony's watch list.

Soon after they opened in 2010/2011, Mahony said 16 convicted drunk drivers say they had their last drink there before driving impaired. In 2014, the bar had reduced their numbers on the 24J list to three drunk drivers naming them as the bar of last drink served.

"We have worked diligently with Foxcares and Foxboro PD in putting the public's safety first and will continue to do so," Waxy's Pub's Director of Operations Sean Sullivan said. "As we continue to build our brand, we look forward to building the relationships with our local law enforcement groups to promote responsible alcohol service."

As a relatively quiet night wrapped up in Worcester, an undercover officer with Worcester Police said he hopes all bars follow suit.

"We're gonna be out there," he said. "We're gonna be watching. That's what we do."

Work they hope helps everyone make it safely home for the holidays.

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