Three strikes and she's out?

Jenna Bush may be facing not only her father's wrath, but a jail sentence under a zero-tolerance law he signed.

Published June 2, 2001 10:30PM (EDT)

Jenna Bush appears to be in bigger trouble than was originally thought, and could potentially even face a short jail term. Her botched Tuesday night attempt to buy booze at Chuy's, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin, earned her a charge from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission for misrepresenting her age in order to get liquor.

Barbara, Jenna's twin sister, ordered and was served a drink during the incident. She was charged with alcohol possession by a minor, and would be sentenced as a first-time offender if convicted.

But this wasn't Jenna's first time. She pleaded no contest to a charge of alcohol possession by a minor on May 16, making the Chuy's charge her second in less than a month. Now one Texas newspaper is reporting that this is the third time Jenna has run afoul of the law over alcohol, and could potentially put her in line for the slammer, thanks to the tough-on-booze policies her dad signed as governor.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has a record of another alcohol-related incident involving Bush, dated Dec. 31, 1997. Since the incident occurred when Jenna was 16, the TABC would not reveal a full report on it, and according to the Chronicle, "commission officials would not say whether Jenna Bush's name appears for a citation, a warning or an administrative action." However, says D'Ann Johnson, executive director of the Texas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, it could be factored into the sentencing procedure if Bush is convicted in this most recent incident.

As governor, Bush signed "zero tolerance" into law in June of 1997, six months before his daughter's alleged first brush with the TABC, and the law went into force in September of that year. Under the provision, a third underage alcohol offense carries a possible 180-day jail sentence and a fine of between $250 and $2,000. For a second offense, there's a fine of up to $500, 20 to 40 hours of community service and a 60-day driver's license suspension, while first-time offenders faced the same fine, with eight to 12 hours of community service, a 30-day driver's license suspension and an alcohol education course. Before "zero tolerance," an underage drinker faced a $25 to $200 fine for any and all offenses, and that was it.

The state had a financial incentive to adopt the newer, tougher laws in 1997. Federal authorities were threatening to withhold $77 million in highway funds for the state unless Texas developed a stricter code for underage drunken drivers. Before zero tolerance, an under-21 driver could have up to a .07 blood alcohol level before being cited for a violation of law. That was tougher than the .10 level required for an adult to be charged, but it still let younger drivers get away with ignoring the state's legal drinking age of 21.

So Texas reacted in a big way. The new legislation made it possible for teen drivers to be arrested if they were found behind the wheel with only a trace of alcohol in their systems. Police weren't even required to give a blood-alcohol test before issuing a citation; an officer's word that a minor's breath smelled of alcohol was enough for a charge.

Despite the severity of the penalties and the thin requirements for evidence, the law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and little noticeable protest. Bush signed the law after Texas state Sen. Royce West, a Democrat, shepherded the bill through the Legislature where it was unanimously approved by both houses.

Johnson said that, at the time, there was no upside for legislators to question or resist Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the primary advocates of get-tough-on-alcohol policies. "The criminal defense lawyers always tried to speak out on [those] issues," Johnson said, though they usually met deaf ears among lawmakers. "Legislators don't say 'I really want to know what criminal defense lawyers think.'"

Especially not in 1997, when the Texas Legislature was getting tough with young lawbreakers of all kinds. Along with the new drinking laws, Texas imposed stiff fines for minors found in possession of tobacco and made teens caught putting graffiti on buildings subject to jail time. But Johnson claims that Bush's crime-and-punishment agenda made it difficult for the most dogged activist to spend much energy on standing up for the juveniles affected by such laws.

"The voice of reason was a quiet whine," Johnson said. Those who wanted to fight to make the Texas criminal justice system more fair under Bush, she said, were much more focused on monitoring the relaxation of rules covering bail bondsmen and correcting the inequities of the death penalty system.

Because the civil libertarians were frying bigger fish in 1997, the president's daughter could be headed to jail after her next trip to court, if, say, that first incident listed by the TABC was an actual conviction of illegal possession. But Lou Bright, general counsel of the TABC, points out the listing of the 1997 incident "could mean any of 10,000 different things."

Under any circumstances, Bright said, a judge would have wide latitude in considering the juvenile TABC record of an underage drinker. From the sentence Bush received after pleading no contest to an alcohol possession citation in May, it seems to indicate that the 1997 incident either was not on the Texas justice system's radar screen, or did not merit any mention from the judge. At that time, Bush was required to pay a $51.25 fine, attend an alcohol education course and serve eight hours of community service, a sentence consistent with a first offense.

And the police on Tuesday also appeared willing to go easy on the first daughters. "[The cop] suggested that I turn the other cheek," Chuy's manager Mia Lawrence told the Austin American-Statesman. "I said I felt the police should do what they normally do."

But the most severe penalty may come this weekend, when the twins face their father at Camp David. At least Jenna could offer him a suggestion that would keep her on the right side of Texas law while still getting the occasional margarita: In Texas, it's legal for minors to drink in restaurants, as long as their parents are present and buy their drinks. And in her case, drinking with Daddy would also come with an added safety feature: Since he swore off the stuff years ago, she'd always have a designated driver.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

Related Topics ------------------------------------------