Connecticut Attorney General's Office

Press Release

Attorney General, In Formal Brief, Says Tribes Not Immune From Laws Prohibiting Reckless Alcohol Service

Septemeber 14, 2009

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, in an amicus brief submitted to the Connecticut Appellate Court, said tribal casinos are not immune from the state's Dram Shop Act and other laws that bar reckless dispensing of alcohol.

Blumenthal asked the appellate court to overturn a trial court ruling that wrongly held that tribal casinos are exempt from certain liquor laws intended to protect the public safety.

"Tribal sovereignty must yield to public health and safety laws -- particularly liquor laws -- intended to save lives," Blumenthal said. "We must hold tribal casinos to their moral and legal duty to respect these laws. The tribes affirmatively agreed to obey public safety laws -- and the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered them to do so."

Blumenthal filed the brief in support of Emily Vanstaen-Holland and her mother, Susan Holland, who are suing the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and others in connection with an accident in which Emily Vanstaen-Holland, a pedestrian, was struck by someone allegedly intoxicated after drinking at Mohegan Sun.

Emily Vanstaen-Holland, 15 at the time of the accident, suffered life-altering injuries.

While one reservations tribal casinos are accorded general sovereignty, Blumenthal said they are not exempt from some specific public health and safety laws, including liquor laws such as the Dram Shop Act, which aid DUI enforcement and ensure that victims of drunk drivers are properly compensated.

Blumenthal said, "This case carries profound consequences for victims of drunk driving crashes involving casino patrons. Lives have been lost or damaged by intoxicated drivers leaving tribal casinos. Intoxicated drivers must be held accountable -- but tribal casinos must also accept responsibility for illegal and irresponsible alcohol sales just like other bars."

Blumenthal said tribal sovereign immunity flows from tribal sovereignty, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held that tribal sovereignty is limited and, specifically, that the tribes have no sovereignty in the area of liquor. Congress has granted the state concurrent jurisdiction in this area and federal law does nothing to preclude Connecticut's courts from exercising jurisdiction to enforce the state's laws intended to limit the devastation resulting from DUI in Connecticut.

The Vanstaen-Holland case is only one of several DUI incidents in recent years involving casino patrons.

In March, a 23-year old Navy sailor - who later reportedly told police that he had four or five drinks over the course of the evening at a Mohegan Sun club -- struck a livery van carrying seven students headed to Boston's Logan Airport. The students were travelling to Uganda to spend their spring break distributing medical supplies. Student Elizabeth Durante, 20, died at the scene.

Less than one month later, a Lisbon construction worker -- who admitted to police that he had been drinking at Mohegan Sun -- allegedly caused a crash in Norwich that killed a 59-year-old woman from Willimantic.

Blumenthal also cited studies revealing that while DUI arrests statewide have fallen, they have increased in communities surrounding both casinos, including Norwich and Montville. He said another study concluded that southeastern Connecticut, home to both Connecticut tribal casinos, had the highest rate of highway fatalities in the state by a wide margin -- with the leading causes speeding and drunken driving.