Beer Board Debates Issue Of Fines

Thursday, May 1, 2014 - by Gail Perry

Discussion of the appropriate punishment for a violation of the city’s beer code took place at the Thursday meeting of the Chattanooga Beer Board. This became an issue because a monetary fine was given at the last meeting to Scarlett Bowman, owner of The Big Chill, for over-serving a customer. At that time, the business had been open at a new location just one week after operating on Market Street for 16 years without an infraction. Because of her long history in the area, Ms. Bowman was given the choice of paying a $1,000 fine or having a three-day suspension of her license. She chose the fine.

Board member Christopher Keene told the board that he was in favor of accepting monetary fines for a bar that serves an intoxicated customer but not for one that serves beer to a minor. 

Ron Smith responded that the reason that he is not in favor of that punishment was because $1,000 is a very small penalty for a large establishment while the same fine would take a long time to make up at a small mom and pop business. He said that suspension of a license keeps the punishment level by reducing the bar or restaurant’s income by a percent of its customary business whether it is large or small.

Mr. Keene responded that it does not make a difference to him as to which business has money. He said that he feels as if suspending a license punishes employees who have nothing to do with the violation and who would not work if the business is closed.

Chairman of the Board Phillip Sallee said most businesses that receive a suspension do not close down during a suspension, but just do not serve beer. Those waitresses and bartenders still have jobs, he said. 

To clarify the penalties, Assistant City Attorney Keith Reisman said that the maximum civil penalty that can be given for serving an intoxicated customer is $1,000 and $2,500 for serving a minor. Fines are the same for either large or small businesses.

Chairman Sallee said he does not favor making a distinction between the violations of serving a minor or over-serving a customer since both can have the same results. “It’s not taking care of the public either way," he said. 

Mr. Reisman weighed in on the discussion saying that there are nine capable members of the beer board and each needs to make their own opinion. "It is up to your discretion," he said, “if five agree, then that is it.”

Chairman Sallee said, “I truly don’t think that it should be a blanket decision,” and added that while trying to keep rulings consistent, he thinks that each case should be handled individually. “We don’t need to adopt a formal policy,” he told the others. 

The violation before the board Thursday was for Memories event hall at 607 Tunnel Blvd. and the promoter of a party that took place on March 28. A special events permit was obtained by Jeff Spencer, the promoter. Mr. Spencer told the board that he had organized a birthday party for himself along with a partner, Stephen Benford. He invited his family and church friends, he told the board. He also said that it had been advertised on the radio as a Moscato party with free food. Before the event, he produced tickets and sold them. This is the second such party that he had organized hoping to make a little money.

Responding to a report of shots fired in the parking lot, Officer John Collins and Sergeant Jeff Gaines made a bar check at around 9:30 p.m. and found a makeshift bar with three large boxes of alcohol concealed under a table. The location does not have a beer or ABC license. A female was serving set-ups, but the alcohol was all under the bar, testified Sgt. Gaines. One box contained 47 miniatures and another held five-fifths of liquor, he said.  

Board member James Hobbs questioned how Mr. Spencer could have missed seeing that much alcohol being carried in and added that was more than brown bagging. The promoter said he had been told it was food and drink for the man’s friends and family. 

Attorney Reisman said the only issue to be decided by the beer board was if the police department had done a thorough investigation to determine if a violation had occurred. The vote was a unanimous yes. This will prevent the promoter from receiving another special events permit for one year.

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