Court puts curbs on liquor board Panel cannot restrict cafe after license is awarded

November 14, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court yesterday curbed the power of the Baltimore liquor board, ruling that it cannot restrict a tavern's hours or the type of entertainment it offers once a license has been issued.

The Court of Appeals reversed a 1994 order by the Baltimore board that prohibited a Fells Point tavern from having live entertainment, disc jockeys, dancing and exotic entertainment as a penalty for complaints from neighbors about rowdy behavior.

The court said the board overstepped its bounds by issuing the order to the Fells Point Cafe in the 700 block of S. Broadway.

"It is reasonable to infer that the General Assembly did not intend the Board to have the power to place restrictions on a license as an enforcement mechanism," Judge Howard S. Chasanow wrote for a unanimous court.

The court said the liquor board may levy only three types of penalties: license suspension, license revocation or fines.

But the court also said the board may place restrictions on liquor license holders as conditions for granting or transferring a liquor license.

bTC Assistant Attorney General Gerald I. Langbaum, who had not seen the ruling yesterday, said it could prompt the General Assembly to amend liquor codes if it significantly hinders the board's ability to regulate licenses.

"The legislature could turn around and give them [liquor boards] the authority that the court apparently has told them that they don't have," he said.

George G. Brown, chairman of the city liquor board, said he knew nothing about the ruling and could not comment on it.

But Melvin J. Kodenski, a lawyer for the Fells Point Cafe, said Maryland's liquor codes need to be revised to give each liquor board the same regulatory authority.

"Right now, there's just no uniformity," he said.

The court's decisions were spelled out in two opinions issued yesterday that stemmed from appeals filed after battles in Baltimore Circuit Court between the liquor board and the Fells Point Cafe and the 32nd Street Plaza.

The 32nd Street Plaza, in the 400 block of E. 32nd St., sued last year to reverse a board order to close at 11 p.m. Sundays rather than at 2 a.m. The board has suspended the club's liquor license in an unrelated matter and is not affected by yesterday's decision.

But the court ordered the Fells Point Cafe to live up to a voluntary 1993 agreement reached with the Fells Point Homeowners Association. The court determined that the agreement is what led the liquor board to grant the license.

Residents complained to the liquor board that the club's owners were not living up to the agreement, which prompted the board to issue a series of restrictions that were the subject of yesterday's ruling.

Bud Billings, an association member who lives a block from the Fells Point Cafe, said the club has contributed to the rowdiness in Fells Point each weekend: smashed windows, fights and damaged property.

He said the club's owners have never lived up to the agreement because it never operated as a restaurant. "It's basically a dance hall," Billings said.

But Kodenski said the club operates as a restaurant "with an extensive food menu. It's not as if they're doing anything they shouldn't be doing," he said.

Court's ruling

The Court of Appeals ruling:

Prohibits the liquor board from limiting a bar's hours or entertainment as punishment;

Restricts the board to assessing three types of penalties: license suspension, license revocation or fines;

Allows the board to place restrictions on license holders as conditions for granting or transferring a license.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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