Signs of Intoxication

Signs of Intoxication

Licensees and their employees need to know the signs of intoxication. This information can help you recognize when a customer has had too much to drink. It is illegal to serve or sell alcohol to anyone who appears to be intoxicated. It is illegal to serve or sell alcohol to anyone who is “apparently under the influence” of alcoholic beverages (or, for that matter, drugs, whether legal or illegal). The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that the determination of whether a patron is “apparently under the influence” requires more than simply observing the patron to determine if the patron is “obviously intoxicated.” Rather, the server must utilize at least “some thought and reflection” in reaching a conclusion as to whether the patron is apparently under the influence.

When in doubt, don’t serve alcohol. Your decision not to serve a customer who is apparently under the influence could not only save your liquor license and potentially save you from a calamitous, and in many cases, uninsured, civil suit, but it could also save someone’s life. (RCW 66.44.200 and WAC 314-11-035)

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against a person due to a disability. If a disability appears to explain a warning sign for possible intoxication, such as unsteady walking due to leg braces or drooping eyelids due to blindness, look for additional signs that may signal intoxication. Since some characteristics of certain disabilities may mimic signs of intoxication, only through diligent communication can you assure that individuals with disabilities are treated fairly. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

Remember, alcohol affects everyone differently. A person’s level of intoxication may depend on how fast the person is drinking, the amount of food consumed, mood and other factors. Following are some of the most common signs of intoxication.

Lack of physical coordination

Spilling drinks can be a sign of intoxication, especially if it happens more than once. This may show that your customer has lost muscle control. Watch to see if the customer misses their mouth when raising their glass to drink.

Carelessness or clumsiness with money

Watch to see if your customer is dropping cash on the floor, has trouble picking it up or getting his/ her wallet out, or cannot count out the right amount to pay for a drink.

Unsteady walking

Watch for customers who are bumping into furniture or other customers.

Behavior changes

  • ƒ Some customers who have had too much to drink will become loud, pick fights and/or swear. ƒ
  • Some will complain about your service, the cost of your drinks, or the way they were mixed.
  • Some customers become very friendly when they are drinking. A person who becomes unusually entertaining and boisterous can be just as intoxicated as someone who is causing trouble. Watch for customers who are buying rounds of drinks for strangers. Excessive bragging may also be a giveaway.
  • Keep an eye out for customers who lose their concentration and train of thought during conversation, or avoid eye contact. Look for bobbing heads or drooping eyelids.

Relaxed inhibitions, impaired judgment or slowed reaction time

  • If it takes longer for a person to answer your question, or if the answer does not fit, it may be an indicator of intoxication.
  • Inappropriate behavior, touching or verbal abuse are also signs.

Speech patterns

Talk to your customers. If you don’t already know them, it will help you recognize any changes in their speech as they are drinking. Look for:

  • Loud talking
  • Bragging
  • Arguing
  • Swearing
  • Complaining
  • Slurred speech
  • Talking slowly and deliberately
  • A strong odor of alcohol

A summary sheet of this information is available from your local enforcement office. Be on the lookout for the first warning signs of intoxication. Early action on your part may prevent your customer from becoming a problem. Remember, it takes about one hour to take away the effect of one drink. Keep a mental note of how many drinks your customers have had.

Rev. 12/15/14


This article is an excerpt from the Handbook for Excellent Restaurant Operations (HERO), published by the Washington Hospitality Association.  Want a hard copy of the whole manual?  It’s one of the many benefits of becoming a member!  Find out more about joining the Washington Hospitality Association here.

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