Alcohol sting a wake-up call for bar owners

WARNER ROBINS — When Warner Robins police Lt. Lance Watson organized the most recent undercover sting targeting underage drinking at bars, clubs and lounges in Warner Robins, he said he was bothered by the results.

Most had violations, whether serving alcohol to an underage informant or allowing someone in under 21 or serving alcohol after hours.

Watson said he’s not sure what to make of the results — whether folks have just gotten lax or if there’s a more widespread problem.

But owners of some of the establishments say there isn’t a gross problem with alcohol being sold to minors. They say folks just made some mistakes and the enforcement sting was a definite wake-up call.

In April and May, Warner Robins police conducted an undercover sting that encompassed several establishments. Only two — Kippers and Brewskies — were without violations, Watson said.

The enforcement action prompted City Council hearings on possible alcohol license suspensions and revocations for some of the businesses. The Tavern received a warning for allowing a person under 21 to be inside the establishment, while Shenanigan’s alcohol license was suspended for 30 days after alcohol was served to a person under 21.

Hearings for Neighbor’s Grill and Showtime Lounge are scheduled for today. The hearings for Yesterdaze, Aces & Eights and Cadillac II are pending. The final three will likely have their hearings in June, but notices have not yet been sent out, said City Clerk Stan Martin.

The sting also resulted in misdemeanor charges against some owners and employees for violating city ordinances that are punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and/or up to one year in jail, City Attorney Jim Elliott said.

While police may have witnessed more than one violation during the sting, only one charge may have been made, Watson said. For example, if a door keeper was responsible for checking IDs, the bartender who served the drink may not be charged, he said. The violation cited instead might be having a person in the establishment who is under 21, he said.

Watson said police are not trying to shut the businesses down but ensure compliance.

“We’re just trying to keep the community safe and the officers safe,” Watson said.

But a suspension or revocation of an alcohol license “doesn’t require a conviction or even a charge,” Elliott said.

The city only has to show that the alleged actions were taking place, regardless of whether any charges are taken or not, Elliott said.

That’s because serving alcohol in Warner Robins is considered a privilege and not a right, Elliott said.

The city ordinances governing alcohol sales gives City Council flexibility at its hearings, Elliott said.

The council may opt for no action, a warning, suspension or revocation tailored to whether the offenses are considered minor infractions or gross and grievous violations, Elliott said.

Two or three readings are not required, nor are there graduated steps that other municipalities have from a warning to suspension to revocation, Elliott said.

State law gives municipalities rights to govern alcohol sales. In Warner Robins, people under 21 are not permitted in establishments that sell mostly alcohol but they may enter those in which two-thirds of the gross receipts are derived from food sales, Elliott said. In contrast, in Macon, for example, those 18, 19 and 20 may enter bars but not drink.

In addition, the city does not permit alcohol sales on Sunday mornings but cuts them off at midnight Saturday, while other municipalities allow the sales until 2 a.m., Elliott said.

LaFaye Thigpen, manager of Neighbors, plans to fall on the mercy of the council.

Neighbors is under fire after a bartender was charged with serving alcohol to a person under 21.

“We’re terribly, terribly sorry and we regret that it happened,” Thigpen said.

Thigpen said he’s also hopeful that the establishment’s track record would come into play — noting this was the first violation in 1 1/2 years of operation. Also, the bartender was let go, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a gross problem of the sale of alcohol to minors,” Thigpen said of the recent enforcement action. “I think some folks made some mistakes ... Why risk your whole business for nominal sales?”

Kenny O’Neal, owner of Aces & Eights, agreed.

Even a 30-day revocation of his alcohol license would be crushing, he said, because of lost revenue. He noted he would still have to pay rent, electric and cable bills, employee salaries, health insurance and workman’s compensation.

“It would devastate us,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal also plans to seek mercy from council. He said he was filling in for two bartenders who were out sick and found himself behind the counter, having let the time get away from him on a busy night when he served alcohol to a person after midnight on a Saturday.

“It was just a mistake and I’ll take the responsibility like a man,” O’Neal said.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 923-3109, extension 243.