Minor Detail

by Nathan Stubbs

Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Lafayette police step up their enforcement of underage drinking in hub city bars.

On Thursday, May 13, three bars in Lafayette will be forced to temporarily close their doors. Two of them - The Bulldog, located at 109 General Mouton Ave., and Pilots Sports Pub, at 3822 West Congress St. - are being shut down for three days, allowed to re-open on Sunday, May 16. The other, Club Moet, located 1307 12th St., will begin a one-year suspension of its retail...

Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Lafayette police step up their enforcement of underage drinking in hub city bars.

On Thursday, May 13, three bars in Lafayette will be forced to temporarily close their doors. Two of them - The Bulldog, located at 109 General Mouton Ave., and Pilots Sports Pub, at 3822 West Congress St. - are being shut down for three days, allowed to re-open on Sunday, May 16. The other, Club Moet, located 1307 12th St., will begin a one-year suspension of its retail permit. Club Moet's suspension is tied to a recent sting where seven exotic dancers were found stripping beyond the point allowed even at licensed strip clubs in the city limits. Moet was cited with seven counts of nude dancing and seven counts of exotic dancers without a permit.

The suspensions for The Bulldog and Pilots Sports Pub are both single count charges of a minor in possession of alcohol in their establishment. The charges date back to separate, widely publicized incidents from last year where minors were involved in fatal car accidents after allegedly drinking at the bars.

Each of the citations falls under a never-before enforced provision in a 2005 city ordinance and reflects a rising priority from the Durel administration and the police department to crack down on underage drinking, as well as other illegal activities in bars.

Lafayette Consolidated Government Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley says police have recently stepped up enforcement of all alcohol-related crimes, especially when it relates to underage drinking. "We're cracking down on DUIs, we're cracking down on underage possession, we're cracking down on underage drinking," Stanley says. "It's the law. We have heard from our police department. We have heard from parents of young people that it is a problem that is of major concern to them."

Police Chief Jim Craft says he has been meeting monthly with local bar owners to try to improve communication and cooperation between bars and police. At the January meeting, Craft told bar owners the police will begin enforcing the 2005 city ordinance that provides for the possible shutdown of bars where minors are found in possession of alcohol. Police are granted the authority under a sweeping 2005 ordinance - brought by the now-defunct Criminal Justice Support Services - which regulates alcohol sales, as well as establishes a permitting process for exotic dancers. The ordinance states that any establishment found to be in violation of state law that prohibits minors from possessing alcohol can have its license suspended for three days for a single violation. A second violation can result in a five-day suspension. The penalty for a third violation goes up to a 15-day suspension, and a fourth violation can result in the permanent revocation of a bar's permit. The ordinance does include exemptions for cases where a minor is with a parent or legal guardian or given alcohol as part of a religious ceremony or medical need. Violations are determined at administrative hearings before the city government CAO, or his designee. Any violation can be appealed to the city-parish council.

"We wanted the owners to have plenty of notice," Craft says. "I said, Listen, when we do our compliance checks we will be looking for this, and we just want to give you guys a heads up on this so that you don't come back later and say you didn't tell us about this. We're supposed to be trying to cooperate with each other.'"

Bar owners have been distressed by the news, worried that they, as owners, will be penalized for situations that may well be out of their control. "I have some issues with this ordinance being enforced the way it's written," says Danny Smith, owner of Grant Street Dancehall and co-owner of Karma, who notes that he does not speak for all bar owners. Other bar owners contacted for this story expressed similar concern but did not want to be quoted.

The issue also has been raised among local members of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Phil Faul, owner of Fezzo's and president of the Acadiana chapter of the LRA, says he plans to meet with several restaurateurs next week to discuss the situation but could not comment on the ordinance at this time.

Smith says he supports holding the appropriate offenders responsible. "If me as a permit holder, if I'm violating the state law, parish law or city law then I should be punished," he says. "But if a 25-year-old man buys a beer and then turns around 10 minutes later and hands it to his 20-year-old girlfriend or any 20 year old, and an enforcement agent witnesses that, I think the 25-year-old man and the 20-year-old girl should both be punished. I don't think the bartender should be punished, and I don't think the permitted establishment should be punished when they've done nothing wrong. I just think that's another form of passing the buck basically. Let's not punish the person who does the crime; let's punish the person who's more easily punishable."

Craft contends that the police department would likely not cite bar owners in the situation described by Smith. "We have discretion," he says, "and the reason we have discretion is for these kinds of circumstances. I [told the bar owners] we're certainly not going to play gotcha with you guys. We're talking about the various obvious violations where an 18-year-old is able to enter the bar and make purchases all night long, many on their debit cards or credit cards. They've opened up a tab, and you've got their driver's license and debit card behind the bar, and it says they're 18. So those are the kinds of cases we're talking about.

"We have not in the past utilized that portion of the ordinance, but the underage drinking thing is still causing problems downtown and all over," Craft continues.

"My point to them every month when I meet with them is that, Listen, be responsible owners of your business. Be responsible and manage your business properly and don't worry about the almighty dollar, worry about serving these underage drinkers and they get in a car and go kill someone.' In December we had three deaths, and it was all underage drinkers that had drank in Lafayette bars and got killed, and one of them took an innocent life to boot."

Craft is referring to separate incidents that occurred after minors had allegedly been drinking at The Bulldog and Pilots Sports Pub. In September 2009, Kaine Kulka, 18, had allegedly been drinking at The Bulldog hours before he fell, or stumbled, out of the bed of a pickup truck on U.S. 90 at 1:23 a.m. and was struck and killed by a passing vehicle. Bulldog owner Shannon Wilkerson has confirmed that Kulka was at The Bulldog that night but said that the 18-year-old was asked to leave around 11 p.m. after he got in an argument with other patrons.
Wilkerson could not be reached for comment by press time for this article. A civil lawsuit from Kulka's family is pending against The Bulldog.

A few months after Kulka's death, 19-year-old Andrew Garner had allegedly been drinking at Pilots Sports Pub before getting in a car and colliding head-on with a car driven by Trissy Hargrave, 24, of Kaplan. Both Garner and Hargrave died in the crash, which occurred in the 1500 block of Ambassador Caffery Parkway. A 20-year-old passenger in Hargrave's car also suffered critical injuries.

The Lafayette Police Department sent both cases to the District Attorney Mike Harson's office to explore criminal prosecution against the bars, including possible charges of principal to vehicular homicide or principal to vehicular negligent injury. Craft says that the DA is still reviewing the evidence. He added that, in the case of The Bulldog, any charges would likely have to include Kulka's brother, who was driving the pickup truck at the time of the accident. "That's not something we really want to do," Craft says. "It's a tough call for the DA's office."

In addition to stepping up enforcement of existing laws, Craft says the police department will soon bring two new ordinances to the council he feels will further address crime issues around the bars, and which are supported by bar owners. One ordinance will allow police to cite people for "cruising," or loitering in their cars in front of bars. Another will ban go cups and the public consumption of alcohol on the street, with notable exceptions for events including Festival International and Downtown Alive.

Discussions between police and bar owners are also ongoing regarding an ordinance passed by the Lafayette City-Parish Council in February 2009 that imposed a levy on bars to help fund the police department's downtown detail. The arrangement imposed monthly fees ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 on downtown bars and restaurants, depending on occupancy. The agreement called for the businesses to pay about 50 percent of the estimated $250,000 it costs the department to staff the downtown detail. Six months later, the police department raised the fees, citing a need for increased patrols. Bar owners protested, and Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents downtown, introduced an ordinance to abolish the fee. He withdrew the ordinance after bar owners agreed to continue to try to reach some agreement with the police department. According to multiple sources, Shelvin, who did not return a call for comment, also has requested an opinion from state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell regarding the levy.

Regarding underage drinking, Craft says both the police department and the administration feel the best way to address the problem is to raise the age limit for admittance to bars in Lafayette to 21. Bar owners have adamantly opposed the idea, fearful that business would then flock to other areas outside the city that would still admit 18-year-olds.

"We reminded them," Craft says, "that Listen, you want 18-year-olds to be in your bar, but you don't want to be held accountable if they end up getting alcohol. You can't have it both ways. If you're going to have 18-year-olds in your bar then you have to be responsible owners and do your best to make sure that they don't get alcohol and consume alcohol illegally."