Police get tough with bars that overserve

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April 4, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Shortly after midnight on Jan. 12, two men left Rick's Cabaret, 300 3rd St., and got into a waiting cab. They did not know each other, but according to a police report, one man threatened the other, "and then assaulted him in the cab, breaking his eyeglasses and poking him in the eye."

As a result, police arrested a 43-year-old man on suspicion of fifth-degree assault and making threats. After reviewing the incident report, Sgt. Kent Warnberg of police license inspections said he sent Rick's Cabaret a $250 civil fine for overserving alcohol to the suspect.

Bar owners citywide will feel more pain from departing patrons who do something stupid.

The overserving tickets are part of a larger city effort begun 18 months ago, wherein the city issues administrative fines for a range of liquor and gambling code violations. The tickets include: litter within 100 feet of a liquor establishment ($100); sales to obviously intoxicated persons ($250); and sale of alcohol to a minor ($500).

Warnberg said the city is issuing more overserving tickets to deter alcohol-related violence. As part of a relatively new procedure, he flags reports where officers cite alcohol as a possible contributing factor. In cases where Warnberg believes the problem is tied to excess drinking at a particular bar, he will write an overserving citation.

According to the police report on the cab incident, the suspect was "drunk," "violent," "mad," and using foul language. Warnberg talked to the arresting officer to get more information about where the men had been drinking and wrote the ticket. He said Rick's appealed the ticket and lost.

Rick's bar manager declined to comment for this story. (According to the Minneapolis City Attorney's office, the man involved in the cab scuffle had not been charged as of March 21.)

The overserving tickets have raised concerns in the business community.

Dario Anselmo, owner of the Fine Line and president of the Warehouse District Business Association, said the city needed to balance competing interests. It needed to reduce alcohol-related violence but also avoid penalizing responsible small businesses with more fees and regulations, he said.

Warnberg said the overserving tickets won't stop alcohol-related incidents, but it would help raise awareness of the problem. It would make the areas around bars safer for everybody: the police, the general public and the businesses.

"Overserving has always been against the law," Warnberg said. "We have taken a stronger emphasis lately because of what comes from it - drunk driving, assaults, accidents. We want to do what little we can do to stop overserving."

A new approach

Downtown's civilian Community Crime-Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger, a Lyndale resident, deserves some credit for jumpstarting overserving enforcement, Warnberg said.

Krueger said city liquor licenses mandate that bars not overserve patrons. Police know that some bars overserve, but those problems did not trigger a formal city review, called a Technical Advisory Committee, or TAC hearing.

The city wanted a more aggressive approach.

Late last summer, police, licensing and the city attorney's office staff sat down to develop protocols for arresting officers to determine if overserving contributed to an incident, he said.

Warnberg said the street officers now do a better job of asking people: "Where were you drinking? How many did you have to drink?" if the problem appears alcohol related.

"In some instances, I can't determine exactly what bar the people were at or how much they were served - so then I do not write a citation," Warnberg said.

The fine is civil, not criminal, so the city has a lower standard of proof. It doesn't have to show the bar was responsible beyond a reasonable doubt; it just needs to show "clear and convincing" evidence, Krueger said.

A small start

So far this year, Warnberg said he has issued seven overserving tickets based on information gleaned from police reports and follow up interviews. (It is a small number given the amount of alcohol poured citywide.)

In addition to Rick's, Warnberg said the city has cited La Bodega Tapas Bar, 3005 Lyndale Ave. S.; Halek's Bar, 2024 Washington Ave. N.; Red Sea Bar, 320 Cedar Ave. S.; Vegas Lounge, 965 Central Ave. NE; and Brothers Bar, 430 1st Ave. N.

Haleks, Red Sea and Brothers have appealed; and those cases have not yet been decided. Vegas and La Bodega appealed their tickets and lost, Warnberg said. A seventh bar got its ticket dismissed. (The officer did not show up to testify because of a communications breakdown, Warnberg said.)

According to police reports, officers responded to the Vegas Lounge Jan. 4 when an apparently intoxicated woman fought with staff after they told her to leave.

How drunk was she?

Warnberg said the woman threatened the officers that she would defecate in the squad car if they arrested her - and they did, and she did. ("If this lady were not drunk, I do not believe she would have," Warnberg said.)

A representative of Vegas did not return a call.

The La Bodega ticket stemmed from a Jan. 14 incident. Shortly after 2 a.m., a man left the bar. Apparently angered he had to leave at bar time, he broke the front door window.

Owner Maurilio Purpura called the police to report the damage, telling the police the man had been at the restaurant for several hours. Weeks later Purpura received a ticket in the mail for overserving alcohol. (He paid $500 for the window and $250 for the ticket.)

Warnberg said La Bodega staff admitted to the responding officer that the window-busting patron was overserved.

Purpura said the police never caught the suspect. He made no mention of telling the police the suspect was drunk and implied the opposite. He said the suspect was in a party of six that had a $90 food-and-drink tab. "Do you think they were intoxicated?" he asked rhetorically.

Purpura seemed resigned to the ticket, saying the police were doing their job.

"I am against violence as well," he said. "I am against overserving people. One of the reasons I keep my price so high in my restaurant is for this, for drinks. I don't want people to come here and get wasted."

CODEFOR for bars

For years, Krueger has compiled bar-related police reports and e-mailed a list weekly to Downtown bar owners. Items include everything from auto thefts and valet zone violations to assaults.

Krueger calls it an extension of the city's CODEFOR crime system, which helps police and other interested parties track problem areas.

Starting in October or November, he began tracking whether the police calls to bars - for incidents such as disorderly conduct, obstruction or assaults - appeared alcohol-related. He forwards the list to police licensing on a daily basis to review for possible overserving tickets.

Krueger also adds the information on alcohol-related problems to the bar owners' weekly reports. The new comments column includes "AP drunk" for arrested party drunk, or "victim drunk."

He puts the comments in bright red letters. He will add "bar refused entry to intoxicated person" in blue to give bars "a pat on the back" for doing the right thing.

Any owner with any red comments is expected to call the precinct.

"It does get their attention," Krueger said. "It is basically to give them a wake-up call. We want to nip that stuff in the bud."

Sometimes it is an easy problem to correct, he said. Maybe the bar has new staff that hasn't gone through server training. Maybe the bar can isolate and correct the problem immediately.

"We will go to the bar and say, 'Look, here is your chance,'" Krueger said. "'We won't have to go to a TAC hearing.' Sometimes there is a gray area and we have some discretion. We don't want it to continue."

A gray area?

The Warehouse District's Anselmo said some bars encourage excess drinking and alcohol-related problems by offering drink specials and how they market themselves. "There needs to be some accountability for these establishments," he acknowledged.

On the other hand, Anselmo said determining when someone is overserved is a gray area. They could have had several drinks at one bar, and then go to another. Even telling if someone is drunk can be difficult.

"Was that person visibly intoxicated when they were served?" Anselmo asked. "Some people can have a good poker face."

Any bar or bartender could make a bad judgment call, he said. If a bar has consistent problems, then it makes sense to have the owners in for a hearing.

The market discourages bars from overserving, Anselmo noted: "The more alcohol overserving problems you have, the more violence you have, the more lawsuits you have, the higher your insurance is."

Anselmo complained city staff had not consulted bar owners on the new program. Krueger and Warnberg said the issue had been raised repeatedly at monthly "Bar Watch" meetings, where bar owners sit down with police, fire, licensing and city attorney staff to discuss common issues.

They said pointedly that if Anselmo were unaware of the program, it was because he had not attended the meetings.

Warnberg said he has heard the argument that overserving is a gray area.

"It is still incumbent upon the business people not to overserve if they feel someone has had too much," he said.

"I have heard it many times - 'Oh the guy was perfectly fine. We gave him one drink and he fell off the barstool very, very drunk.' It doesn't happen that way."