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Records Show State Often Slow To Crack Down On Bars That Serve Minors

Last April, police were called to a Southern Connecticut State University dormitory to assist a 20-year-old student so drunk she was losing consciousness. She had just been at the Gotham Citi Café in New Haven – where all it took was her real ID and a $5 tip to the bouncer to get in the door, state records show.

Her story marked the fifth time since September 2015 that police had responded to a drunk underage student needing medical attention after drinking at Gotham Citi Café, records show.

The police were not alone in dealing with Gotham Citi. Agents from the state Liquor Control Commission had conducted an undercover operation and discovered an 18-year-old with a fake ID and a 19-year-old drinking a Corona.

But no action was taken.

It would take three more police referrals for alleged underage drinking and a second undercover operation where agents discovered a semi-conscious minor so drunk they needed to call an ambulance before the state took action.

In December 2016, the commission voted to suspend the Gotham Citi Café's liquor license for three days and fine owner Robert Bartolomeo $500.

While serving minors is illegal, gathering enough evidence against any one person can be challenging. The Department of Consumer Protection, which oversees liquor control, targets a bar or restaurant's liquor permit as a more effective tool for controlling underage drinking.

But a Courant probe of the liquor commission's track record uncovered numerous examples where, despite indications of underage drinking, no action was taken.

A Courant review of 578 police referrals to the commission from September 2015-March 2017, including 394 cases of minors being served alcohol, also shows that in some cases the state does not fine or suspend a bar that serves liquor until multiple violations have been documented.

Of the 578 police referrals over that 18-month period, 80, or about 13 percent, resulted in fines from $200 to $6,100. There were 29 additional bars, package stores or restaurants fined after a state investigation that weren't originated by a police referral.

The pattern dramatically came to light following the death of an 18-year-old Central Connecticut State student who fell off the roof of a Hartford bar last March.

The Angry Bull Saloon, where Taylor Lavoie fell to her death after drinking in the bar, had been the subject of multiple police referrals for serving minors and for other offenses, although the state liquor control commission had taken no action against the bar before her death.

For some police chiefs the process can be frustrating.

"We have found it takes numerous referrals to get them (Liquor Control) to react," acting New London Police Chief Peter Reichard said. "It is few and far between that they will do a sting operation."

'The license is the key'

The Liquor Control Commission initiates investigations on a case-by-case basis. There are no state laws indicating how many police referrals or complaints the state must receive before opening an investigation.

Police can arrest someone for providing alcohol to underage drinkers, although the process can be complicated when officers do not have first-hand evidence of where the drinking occurred or who exactly provided the liquor.

Police make referrals to the liquor commission when action is warranted against the establishment, such as leveling fines or closing it down. But that process can also be slowed by a lack of evidence, uncooperative witnesses and budget cuts that have reduced the number of state inspectors.

"There are instances where police enter an establishment and observe minors in possession of alcoholic liquor but cannot establish which person actually sold/served the alcoholic liquor product to that individual," DCP spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson said.

"Police referrals to DCP give us the opportunity to review the business practices of an establishment in which underage sales or sales to already intoxicated persons are alleged," she said.

Wethersfield Police Chief James Cetran said police can issue misdemeanors but those arrests don't have the same effect as going after the liquor license.

"The license is the key," Cetran said. "Liquor Control has the teeth, police can make arrests but it is the liquor permit that is important."

When a police department refers a case to Liquor Control, state officials assign an investigator to the complaint. Liquor Control agents have subpoena power to force witnesses to testify, they can conduct random inspections or conduct undercover sting operations.

The investigators write a report and recommend a course of action which could range from doing nothing to issuing fines to suspending the bars liquor license. The permittee is sent a letter informing them of the action and offering them a chance for a hearing before the three-member Liquor Control Commission.

In many cases, the permittee and the commission reach a compromise. Most first-time complaints don't result in major fines, although there are exceptions.

Facing some criticism from police chiefs, state authorities are defending their record, acknowledging they could use more investigators but that many factors must be considered before they initiate the process that could result in penalties.

"It's one thing to say OK you had all these complaints and it is clearly a college bar, who could dispute that?" said Jonathan Harris, who recently resigned as commissioner of the former Department of Consumer Protection. "There are times it's incredibly frustrating, it's 'why can't we do something here?' At the end of the day we have to meet our burden of proof to take away their property right."

Of the 578 police referrals, the most – 394 – involve sales to minors. The second highest, 92, involve unspecified violations of the establishment's permit, which could include staying open past 2 a.m. or not properly displaying a liquor permit. The referrals include bars, restaurants and liquor stores.

State records show there were 16 bars that had at least three or more police referrals in the past 18 months including the Angry Bull, which had five referrals. The most were Los Imperios of West Hartford which had 23 referrals and the Gotham Citi Café in New Haven with 12 referrals.

"Customer safety at Gotham is our first priority and with over 20 years of business we have practiced procedures in place," Gotham Citi Café owner Robert Bartolomeo said in a written statement. "We support these procedures with modern video technology, a full security staff and regularly hire a NHPD Officer to assist us in our task."

Bartolomeo said it is increasingly difficult to detect fake ID's with today's advanced printing available.

Police also say that there is a lot of lag time between the amount of time it takes the agency to cite a bar and then hold a hearing on the permit or negotiate a final ruling with the bar owner.

At the Sunset Ribs Company in Waterford there were four incidents between April 2016 and August 2016, including a fight in the parking lot on July 4th weekend involving MMA fighter Brennan Ward.

The agency cited the bar after the fight, but it wasn't until January that the bar owner made a compromise offer.

After the state cited the bar for selling alcohol to a minor, manager Sean Gauthier said, the bar implemented a policy of asking anyone with an out-of-state ID to fill out an age verification form.

Former DCP Commissioner Jerry Farrell said the proliferation of fake ID's makes the job harder than ever for law enforcement and for bar owners and package store owners.

"For $50 now a kid can go on the Internet and get a fake ID from China and be in business," Farrell said.

Farrell, who was DCP commissioner from 2006-2011, noted a larger number of underage drinking cases against package stores isn't surprising because they are easier and more cost-efficient for liquor control agents to do.

Frustrating process

Harris said each case and each complaint is different and it is not as simple as counting up how many complaints have been made against a particular establishment.

Factors such as the ability to find witnesses, getting them to testify, getting all of the police reports, whether the permittee has an attorney play into the length it may take to do an investigation and how it unfolds, Harris said.

Harris said there are instances, similar to other law enforcement investigations, that those involved are reluctant to come forward, especially since in some cases those involved are underage.

"Sometimes what might look like a delay that's caused by someone stonewalling is actually you're trying to get to a resolution of something," Harris said.

For some police chiefs the process can be frustrating.

New London police made a total of six referrals to Liquor Control regarding the Cilantro Café between April-November of 2016 for underage drinking and violent incidents, including a man stabbed in the stomach.

In one instance the agency in May of 2016 issued a written warning to Cilantro's owner Edinson Mezhquiri-Heredia and in June they called him to their Hartford offices for a meeting that included New London police.

Heredia told state officials he had three security people at the club and four cameras although none of them were working. He promised to fix the cameras and beef up security.

But over the next few months police made three more referrals, the last one in early November after a fight in the parking lot across the street following the bar closing. Police went to the bar and asked to see security footage and were told the cameras weren't working.

Liquor Control agents cited Heredia for failure to cooperate by not having cameras working as promised at that June meeting. In January of 2017 the Liquor Control Commission suspended Cilantro Cafe's license for three days and fined Heredia $500.

The cafe was shut down from Feb. 16-18.

Harris, who must approve all overtime requests, disputed the perception that Liquor Control conducts fewer field operations. He said overtime for that agency has actually increased in this budget cycle.

Overall the liquor control department is down two positions from two years ago, a far less rate of attrition than other state departments. The department currently has 10 liquor control agents, three special agents and three supervisors.

"It's always better to have more boots on the ground but you know again, we cover a pretty good amount of ground with what we have, could always use more but the budget's such that we are trying to figure out more and more ways to be as focused and as efficient and as effective as possible," Harris said.

West Hartford Assistant Police Chief Robert McCue said his department works with Liquor Control agents about once a year. He said the last "sting" was in May 2016.

He said the main frustration for local police is when someone has been drinking at a bar and then a crime bleeds out to the street. Often, no one can be held responsible.

"(Liquor Control agents) are primarily focused on what happens within the four walls of the restaurant, bar or liquor store," McCue said.

Los Imperios Restaurant & Lounge on Farmington Avenue has been referred 23 times, 21 of those by police, to the liquor commission for infractions including sale to a minor and sale to an intoxicated individual since September 2015, according to records provided by the DCP.

The commission suspended the lounge's restaurant for 16 days last September following a shooting in which police said more than 13 rounds were fired. No injuries were reported but several vehicles were damaged.

That suspension was later rescinded and the restaurant currently has an active liquor permit.

"Further investigation by the police could not provide a direct link between any activity within the premises and a subsequent shooting," Anderson said.

West Hartford-based attorney Rodvald E. Jones said any establishment under the high level of scrutiny that Los Imperios has been under is bound to have a high number of referrals and a few violations.

Jones said he believed there to be two instances in which liquor control said the restaurant was out of compliance and that many of the police referrals were unsubstantiated, like the 16-day liquor license suspension last September when the liquor control board eventually restored the bar's license.

"There was no nexus between what had happened outside of the restaurant versus what occurred inside," Jones said.

After West Hartford Police investigated a series of bars earlier this summer, Los Imperios' liquor license was suspended from September 11-13 and fined $750 for a sale to minor and minor in barroom violation. Anderson said the department worked with the bar's ownership to develop a security program.

Better communication needed

McCue said liquor control, during hearings, does not consider additional referrals made by police between the time of the initial referral and the hearing date.

McCue said that the agency could do a better job communicating with police departments about the status of the referrals they make, having them attend hearings, and notifying police of changes in regulations.

While Los Imperios has remained open and refused to pay the town for its police details, the owners of the Angry Bull decided not to reopen after Hartford police wanted to put cops inside the bar to curb underage drinking.

Hartford police made four referrals about underage drinking at the Angry Bull to the Liquor Control Commission before Taylor Lavoie's death. In the aftermath of that police were critical of the Liquor Control Commission's handling of the Angry Bull.

"Maybe if they had reacted faster to the complaints about (Angry Bull) it would have been closed before the night Taylor went there," Karen Lavoie said.

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