Liquor Licensees: The Good, the Bad and the Violent

A post on Shaw Deserves Better that Nick brought to my attention asks the following: “Why do problematic bars not get closed before people die?”  The question at hand was the deadly violence yesterday at Heritage India in Dupont Circle:

Anybody familiar with the “broken windows” theory of urban planning knows that, in summary, small, unenforced violations of the law lead to bigger violations. So, as these three previous violations did not (that I am aware) result in a fatality, using that theory, it becomes increasingly evident that there was some reasonable expectation that it might escalate to that level. […]

So, the question is really this: almost every bar that’s been affiliated with a fatality in my recent memory had been before the ABRA Board more than once. Certainly, there are many establishments who appear multiple times and still have no body count years later. However, it begs the question – with so many solid liquor licensed establishments in the city, why not put in a “three (or five, or ten) strikes you’re out” style law to kill off these repeat offenders? As is, even when ABRA gets an establishment permanently closed, often times a new establishment opens under the same license in the same location, prolonging suffering, and risk, to the surrounding residential community.

The blog post goes on to mention the ongoing problems at MOOD Lounge on Ninth Street NW, with which this ANC is very well acquainted, and concerns that the establishment might follow the same violent path as the one in Dupont.  The author notes, accurately, that some neighbors are so fed up with the situation–literally sick and tired–that they intend to oppose all new liquor licenses.

The following is a comment I added to the blog post:

Ask anyone on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, and they will tell you that MOOD Lounge has been the worst of the bad liquor-license actors in the entire history of our service on the commission.

The license transferred to MOOD in January 2011, and only weeks later, the complaints began pouring in, the worst of which being noise violations. You would know that MOOD had a CT (tavern) license, because it is operating–illegally–as a CN (nightclub).

Other issues include drunken and disorderly conduct and loitering long after closing hours, fights and assaults, public urination and vomiting, and even one reported case of sexual intercourse on the hood of a car. These incidents happen again and again and again, and the management routinely disregards and fails to respond to the entreaties of nearby residents who lose untold hours of sleep.

The ANC has tried for months to get the city to sit up and take notice, but it has been incredibly frustrating, and the processes and bureaucracy that are put in place make it far too difficult to deal with even such a blatant scofflaw. One would think that after even a fraction of these kinds of instances that some sort of summary action could be taken against the licensee.

The ANC has been working with Councilmember Jack Evans, the MPD, ABRA and DCRA to address this. Thankfully, it is now squarely on the radar of those such as the ABRA director and MPD Chief Lanier. But it should not have taken this long.

I have long contended that the situation is unacceptable and out of control and, as the post above indicates, it is a matter of when, not if, a killing occurs that is tied to the activities in and around MOOD. Shaw and Logan Circle have made far too much forward progress in the last several years to allow our neighborhoods to slip back down the slope again.

That being said, blanket opposition to all future licensees won’t be a helpful or, frankly, a successful approach. As a matter of course, ANC 2F will “protest” new liquor licenses. I don’t like the term “protest” because it implies an adversarial relationship between the licensee and the community from the outset. But a protest is the only way the ANC or neighbors can have standing to ensure a licensee operates in a way that’s compatible with nearby residences. (As a general rule, we tend not to protest licenses in the downtown business district, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as an operator with a poor track record.  We also don’t protest if a Voluntary Agreement can be reached before the ABC Board considers the application.)

Protests and Voluntary Vgreements (another term that I dislike, in that the hurdle for a licensee becomes much higher if they don’t take this “voluntary” action) allow us to balance the needs of businesses and residents. But without them, we cede any input that we might have to the ABC Board, which unfortunately sometimes without enough regard for or knowledge of the needs of the community.

Protests should be undergirded by the law, ABRA regulations, logic and a solid basis for the terms sought in a VA. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek additional safeguards, such as new laws that make it easier to deal with bad actors. But if protests are arbitrary or seen as based upon whims, the ABC Board will begin to tune us out, and the problem might actually get worse–the law of unintended consequences, if you will.

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