The Frederick County Liquor Board voted Monday to sanction a downtown bar after a man who had been cut off from alcoholic beverages earlier in the night bought additional drinks for friends.
The Cellar Door was fined $500 after the board concluded the business had violated a board regulation July 27 by furnishing alcoholic beverages to someone who was visibly under the influence.
The company pleaded not guilty to the charges.
According to sworn testimony at the meeting, a man identified only as "Brad" arrived at The Cellar Door at about 11 p.m. in a taxi with two friends. He, the friends and two others entered the bar after having their IDs checked and chatting with a doorman.--
After about an hour in the bar, the bartenders determined that the man was drunk and should be cut off. He was then served water. Differing testimony indicated he had three or fewer drinks while at the bar.
He ran a total tab of 14 drinks, primarily shots that were given to other people, according to the testimony from bar employees and one of his friends.
After the man was cut off, he bought one final round of shots for his friends and passed them out from his spot at the bar. At that time, the bar's security came to remove him.
Alcoholic beverages inspector Frank Rauschenberg said the man was slumping while he was at the bar and became angry when he was asked to leave.
After a nearly hourlong hearing, board member Dick Zimmerman said he felt it was a "technical violation" for the bar to give the man alcohol for his friends after he'd been cut off.
"This is an interesting case. It was clear that he was intoxicated at the time he was passing those last beverages across the bar, because he was cut off and there was a reason to cut him off," Zimmerman said. "It is also clear that he was there ... buying drinks for friends. I think that's a violation. It's a technical violation of selling to someone who is intoxicated."
He complimented the bartenders and bar security for stopping service to the man and escorting him outside.
"Certainly they observed somebody whose demeanor had changed and they cut him off. That's a good thing," Zimmerman said.
The bar has 72 hours to pay the fine. After the meeting, owner Pam O'Malley Belles vowed to appeal the decision in Frederick County Circuit Court.
Another bar, Isabella's, also faced a violation relating to the same man and his group of friends, but the board dismissed the charge after the board determined there was not enough evidence.
Rauschenberg said the bartenders at Isabella's immediately told the man he could only drink water, but allowed him to pay for drinks for the friends. A bartender said she wasn't sure who bought the drinks. Rauschenberg did not have a bar tab or receipt from Isabella's and couldn't be sure he saw the man hand over his credit card, so the board declined to impose any violation.
Before the board made its final decision, Phil Bowers, president of Fountain Rock Management and the representative for Isabella's at the hearing, cautioned that the board's action against The Cellar Door goes against what license holders are trying to do.
"Obviously, the testimony of both places has shown that we have done everything we can do to not furnish alcohol to an intoxicated person," Bowers said. "Really, what we're talking about is semantics ... and a really, really literal interpretation, almost overboard, that penalizes some very good license holders."
Bowers also said the bar didn't learn of an alleged violation until 47 days after it occurred. If they had received a citation that night, or at an earlier date, they could have looked at security video and helped in an investigation, he said.
Outside the hearing room, Belles said she believes the man was also paying for the drinks at Isabella's, "but I will not go against another licensee."
She said the board's decision against The Cellar Door represented an overly strict reading of the law.
"I feel that since they brought another inspector into this area, they have to justify it," Belles said.
Door must remain open
The Cellar Door requested permission from the board to close early in times of inclement weather or when "there are not enough customers to justify staying open." Liquor license holders are required to give five days of written notice to the board when they deviate from their posted hours. Typically, for weather-related issues, the board doesn't have an issue with someone closing early, said board administrator Kathy Vahle. Closing early on any night would present a problem for inspectors, board members said. The request was denied.