Connecticut Considering a Crackdown on Nightclubs

Unregulated after-hours clubs and "BYOB" joints. Juice bars across the hall from boozy "adult" night spots. Untrained bouncers. Scores of drunks pouring into the streets at 2 a.m. closing times.

When you add in guns, this late-night clubbing cocktail has proven lethal in cities like New Haven and Hartford. Growing outrage over multiple killings has sent state and local officials scrambling in search of ways to stop the violence.

Their list of solutions so far (and it's clearly still a work in progress) sounds almost as complex and varied as the tangled web of existing state laws and regulations that now govern — or fail to govern — these clubs.

Take, for example, after-hours clubs that don't serve alcohol or food and thus escape nearly all state or local regulation.

"They charge you $20 cover to get in and do anything you want," says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser. "The question is what, if anything, can we do about that."

Lawlor says state agencies are now searching to some sort of regulations these clubs might fall under.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, who happens to be from New Haven where there have been multiple club-related deaths this year, says maybe there shouldn't be "after-hours" clubs, especially if you can also bring your own bottle. He argues that maybe all-night spots should have to obey the same 2 a.m. closing time.

Looney says all too often, "people who are already intoxicated [and have just left bars where they've been boozing it up all night] come into these places with more alcohol."

New Haven's chief administrative officer, Rob Smuts, doesn't think the city wants to go that far. "I don't think we're talking about closing times," he says.

Instead, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano would rather allow municipalities more authority to crack down on "nuisance" club owners who let their patrons get out of hand.

There's also a proposal to require that all club bouncers get training or certification from their local police department.

At a news conference last month, DeStefano pointed out that one-quarter of his city's 16 homicides in 2013 were connected to late-night clubs.

Smuts says another partial solution would be to allow clubs in an area to set up their own local "entertainment" taxing district to pay for additional private security or more police patrols. Smuts says a majority of New Haven club owners city officials have talked to "would be in favor of that… but they don't want any freeloaders."

In other words, if they are going to have to pay for added cops, they want everybody operating night spots in their area to chip in on the cost. Some changes would be needed in state law to let club owners create their own tax districts.

Looney thinks that's a grand idea, and says if club owners don't want to do it voluntarily, he's ready to force cooperation through legislative action.

Except that anything that could hurt the profits of bars, restaurants or the liquor industry has a nasty time getting through Connecticut's General Assembly. Those businesses provide lots of jobs and bring in lots of tax revenue and life to urban centers, and their owners also know how to use lobbying power at the State Capitol.

Yet the link between clubs and gun violence seems clear.

The most recent incident happened on Oct. 26 outside the Key Club in New Haven. One woman was shot to death and five others wounded. The club has since surrendered its liquor license while the state and local police conduct their investigations.

In Hartford, Mayor Pedro Segarra pointed to two separate killings in August that happened outside the popular Up Or On The Rocks club near Hartford's train station.

Segarra wants changes in the state law that allows a club to have one area for boozing by adults and another for people under the legal drinking age of 21.

"To attempt to have non-drinking events... at the same location where people are allowed to drink, it's not a workable formula," says Segarra. He says it's simply not enforceable.

"If it's next to impossible to regulate, should we just eliminate it?" is the question Lawlor says the state needs to answer about juice bars.

State liquor officials don't even know how many of these popular "non-alcoholic" bars for young people exist in Connecticut. Current state law says the owner of a café that wants to have a "juice bar" for minors simply has to notify the local police chief.

The cops can then, at the café owner's expense, assign an officer to watch over those young "non-drinkers."

Smuts says New Haven officials aren't looking for anything drastic when it comes to juice bars. "We're not looking to shut them down," he says, just "tweak" the laws or regulations governing them.

What exactly those tweaks would be Smuts isn't ready to say: "That's not something we're going to rush into."

Lawlor says Malloy believes that the state's "mosaic" of laws and regulations governing juice bars and after-hours and BYOB clubs "need to be looked at in a comprehensive way."

Malloy is well aware that any attempt to overhaul our rats' nest of liquor laws in 2014 is certain to trigger some major lobbying fights and get folks all riled up in what happens to be a big election year.

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