State officials discuss their roles in liquor license enforcement
Concerned about the uptick in crime seemingly related to alcohol serving venues in South Side, State Rep. Jessica Benham brought together Pennsylvania Liquor Enforcement (LCE) and Pennsylvania Liquor Control Bureau (PLCB) for a panel discussion on state’s role in alcohol regulation and enforcement.
Panelists included: PLCB Chairman Tim Holden; PLCB Director of Regulatory Affairs Trisha Albert; PLCB Chief Counsel Rod Diaz; PLCE Lieutenant and Western Section Commander Gregory Raybuck; PLCE Sergeant and Pittsburgh District Office Director Daniel Mosura; and, PLCE Officer and Supervisor of the Nuisance Bar Task Force Daniel Beckey.
Rep. Benham opened the discussion by saying the evening wasn’t about singling out any one business or restaurant over another, but an opportunity to learn about the resources available not only at the state level but also at the municipal and community levels.
Chairman Holden said the PLCB is “fully aware” of the challenges being faced in South Side. “I know there are a lot of concerns,” he added.
In giving an overview of the agency, Mr. Diaz explained the PLCB evaluates liquor license applications, taking into consideration if there are community complaints about the application during the renewal process. He said the enforcement of the liquor laws fall under the PLCE.
Ms. Albert added liquor licenses are renewed every two years, giving the PLCB a very small window to evaluate an application.
According to Lt. Raybuck, the PLCE uses several different methods of enforcing the laws. In addition to inspections, enforcement efforts they have include an underage buyer program and a nuisance bar program.
“We work hand in hand with local municipalities, well before anything ever occurred or how bad it became an issue. We currently have established lanes of communication and protocols with the task forces to be as proactive as we can be,” Sgt. Mosura said. “In the Pittsburgh Office, especially with Allegheny County, we have already established a rapport with the City of Pittsburgh Police, Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, municipal agencies.”
Officer Beckey said the Nuisance Bar Task Force meets monthly with representatives from the Pittsburgh police and fire departments, District Attorney’s Office, the Allegheny County Health Department to discuss any problem bars. Discussion includes any incidents of violence such as shootings, stabbings, major fights.
In those cases, the bar will usually be shut down immediately and task force members will meet with the license owners usually within 24 hours to head off any retaliatory issues. They will then decide if any further enforcement measures are needed at the location. In some cases, they will hold community meetings to gather more input.
Rep. Benham asked, given recent events in South Side, what measures has the PLCE taken in the neighborhood.
Officer Beckey said when there started to have problems in South Side this summer the PLCE immediately directed resources to the neighborhood, particularly on weekends. They were in contact with command rank Pittsburgh Police about what the police could do and what the PLCE could do outside of the Nuisance Bar Task Force.
A plan was formed which included not only Pittsburgh police and PLCE, but also Pennsylvania State Police to do directed enforcement efforts in South Side. In addition to speaking with specific bar owners, Officer Beckey said they held a stakeholder meeting with bar owners from the neighborhood.
Without naming the business, Officer Beckey said the owners of one establishment agreed to stop holding underage concerts on Thursday nights which helped to curb some of the incidents.
He said they continue to have enforcement efforts in South Side and Oakland with undercover and uniformed officers, using whatever they feel is prudent at the time.
He noted, without naming the businesses again, that the PLCE came in one bar and wrote 24 non-traffic citations, mostly for false IDs and underage drinking. Two weeks later in another bar they wrote 40 non-traffic citations for false IDs, underage drinking and being visibly intoxicated.
Ms. Albert said while liquor licenses are renewed every two years, her office starts the review process as early as January contacting local police, district attorneys and even community groups. She said they look at a variety of reports to decide the renewal status. If there are issues with the renewal, an administrative hearing is scheduled for the licensee. The licensee is still permitted to remain open under a temporary operating authority until a decision is rendered from the three-member Liquor Control Board.
Officer Beckey added it isn’t an “all or nothing” decision, the PLCE also works with the board and licensee on “intermediatory steps” such as a conditional license agreement, putting operating conditions on a business as a license requirement.
Ms. Albert said the PLCB may also issue an administrative warning is there isn’t enough evidence to prevent license renewal.
Although the PLCB may decline the renewal of an establishment, the licensee has the right to appeal that decision to the Common Pleas Court and have a judge issue a decision. There are five licenses being looked at in South Side, but Ms. Albert couldn’t speak about them do to the litigation.
Rep. Benham asked the panel to explain what the PLCB and PLCE could do and is unable to do as far as enforcement.
When the Nuisance Bar Task Force makes a visit to a bar other task force members such as the Health Department and the Fire Department will look at the things under their purview and issue citations for violations.
Sgt. Mosura said one of the things they are asked frequently is about speakeasys or bottle clubs where patrons can bring their own alcohol. Those are not licensed establishment and do not fall under the purview of the PLCB or PLCE, they are under the jurisdiction of the local police.
“We think that adds to a point of confusion because a lot of folks assume because there’s alcohol there that it falls under the LCB or LCE. It does not, it actually falls under your local police department,” he added.
Officer Beckey said a judge can have a bar padlocked through a “611 Action,” that is brought by a DA with a citizens’ group. The action has people who live in the area coming forward to provide testimony or statements. In the past, they have worked with the DA to set up a tenant association where one person would be able to testify and bring statements from others in the association.
“Those are more impactful in getting a place shut down than any of the enforcement action that we do, because the judge hears from the people that actually live in the community and being impacted,” he added.
The actions have been more effective in other counties rather than Allegheny County with people coming forward.
Mr. Diaz said entities that can bring the 611 Action include not only the DA, but also the LCE, local municipalities and even residents living within 500 feet of an establishment. A judge can provide immediate relief under the action by shutting down the business but will also require substantial proof to do so.
Some qualifications for having a liquor license include having seating and food for 30 persons, a valid Health Permit and at least 400 sq. ft. of serving area, Ms. Albert explained. The PLCB can immediately suspend a license until they come into compliance, after an investigation by the PLCE, if the establishment doesn’t maintain all three requirements.
Sgt. Mosura said the 611 Action is generally an action of last resort. A lengthy investigation is involved and all other avenues have been exhausted.