Stepped-up liquor store raids draw owners' ire

Police make arrests after stings, searches

February 20, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

When an underage Baltimore police cadet was served in an east-side liquor store on Jan. 24, the trouble was just beginning for the store's owner.

Minutes later, a team of police and liquor inspectors was swarming through Kay's Liquors at 2444 E. Biddle St. While inspecting the store's license in a backroom office, a police officer reported seeing a sawed-off shotgun "in plain view on a wall shelf."

The owner, Suk C. Ha, 38, was arrested and charged with possession of an unregistered firearm.

The raid Jan. 24 was one of about 70 conducted during the past few weeks at bars and liquor stores as part of a cooperative effort of the Baltimore City Liquor Board and the Police Department's Firearms Apprehension Strike Team.

Thornton Daniels, the liquor board's chief inspector, said the raids, part of an effort to combat what he described as widespread problems with underage drinking, drugs and illegal firearms, have been productive, yielding dozens of liquor law violations.

Officer Paul Southard said 14 weapons were confiscated during the raids, five people were arrested on felony charges and six were charged with misdemeanors. Those arrested ranged from bar owners to employees to patrons.

The raids also have produced an array of drug paraphernalia, including crack pipes, confiscated from barrooms and liquor stores across the city. The glass pipes, which bar owners buy for a little more than a penny apiece, are sold for $1.

Southard said the idea for the joint operation with the liquor board came after he witnessed a series of incidents in which youths gathered near licensed establishments were involved in drug dealing and violent crimes.

"There is clearly a problem with the sale of alcohol to youths all over the city," Daniels said. "The issues are underage drinking, violence and drug use. It's a perfect fit."

Daniels said the raids occurred on four dates from Jan. 23 to Feb. 13. In 72 visits to licensed establishments, 54 violations were found. Fifteen of the license holders were cited at least twice, he said.

The raids, however, have provoked growing criticism from bar owners and their attorneys, who accuse the liquor board and police of engaging in "Gestapo-like tactics" and "trampling on the rights" of liquor license holders.

The protests also have brought increased scrutiny to the liquor board at a time when the current appointees' terms are about to expire. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has yet to announce whether some or all of the current appointees will be replaced.

Aides to the governor say that Ehrlich held off on making appointments because of disagreement among Baltimore legislators over who should get the jobs.

Critics of the raids have been making the case to members of the General Assembly that the raids show the need for change at the liquor board.

In a Feb. 7 letter to city legislators, Gary R. Maslan, the attorney for Kay's Liquors, said the "warrantless searches" were illegal. He said Ha, who had no prior record, was kept in a police detention unit for 24 hours before being released on bail.

"Such activity of the Police Department and the liquor board is intolerable, unconstitutional and must be stopped," Maslan wrote.

In a recent interview, Daniels said the raids were conducted only at bars where a violation of liquor laws - the sale of liquor to a minor - was first recorded. If the police cadet is not get served, no raid is conducted.

"Even though it's a Wild, Wild West out there, we proceeded with discretion," he said.

Daniels said the sale in the barrooms of items "that can only be used for consuming illegal drugs" is further proof of the validity of the raids. "There's nothing else you can use them for."

Maslan, who represents Kay's Liquors and the OK Tavern at 2301 E. Biddle St., which also was raided, said the bar owners have no problem with the use of police cadets to find cases of illegal sales to minors.

"The cadet program has been going on for 30 years. After they come in and if they get served, [authorities] normally just come in and cite the bar for a routine violation. This time, they came in with the police and did a search of the entire premises," Maslan said.

"We feel they just trampled over the rights of the proprietors. We don't feel it's appropriate," he added.

Nathan C. Irby Jr., the former state senator and executive secretary of the city liquor board, said Maslan's complaint is one of many he has heard since the raids began.

As a result, he said, he will ask state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. for an advisory opinion on whether the raids are legal. Irby noted, however, that under state law, liquor inspectors have the authority to search licensed premises without a warrant.

Irby said he is going over the individual complaints "to determine what's what."

Daniels said he is working with community groups, including the associations representing Korean- and African-American bar owners, to get the word out so the bars and package stores will stop selling the drug paraphernalia.

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