Inside D.C. entertainment

Shuttering nightclubs for violence without shuttering them for violence

August 11, 2011 - 02:45 PM
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The troubled Capitol Heights nightclub MSG has been shut down by P.G. County police, following a Monday morning drive-by shooting that left one young patron dead and another seriously injured. As the Washington Post reported this morning, the closing of the business marks the first time the county has shuttered a nightclub using a new dance hall law, passed in July, that beefs up regulation of those businesses (a ban on dancing after 2 a.m. is included in the legislation) and allows the county to close them if they don't comply or are considered a threat to public safety.

The law is yet another weapon in the county's battle to get rid of nightclubs with histories of violence. Closing such clubs, in P.G. County and elsewhere around the country, is something that is difficult to do based solely on the violent acts themselves.

In D.C., and other area jurisdictions, a pattern of violence in or around a particular nightspot usually means a temporary revocation of a nightclub's liquor license, which is, more often than not, a de facto shutdown of the club. After a regulatory body pulls a club's business license or liquor license (usually on the advice of local police), there is a hearing process, the club presents a plan to beef up security and address any regulatory infractions, and the club is allowed to reopen. Sometimes the process repeats, sometimes it does not.

For those clubs where violence is an issue again and again, jurisdictions also go after them for various code violations while they wait for a club to rack up enough violent incidents to establish a strong enough pattern of trouble to justify a permanent liquor license revocation. Typically, those violations are related to serving alcohol to minors, overcrowding, noise, or various health code violations. But often, jurisdictions dig deep into their ordinances to find ways in which to cite clubs.

Food stamp fraud: Earlier this year, police and city officials in Columbus, Ohio, hit Pepper's nightclub with a variety of minor violations, including the misuse of EBT cards, or food stamps, as they built a case for shutting down the club permanently, for violent crimes and suspected prostitution.

Encouraging star athletes to violate NCAA rules: The club wasn't shuttered for this, but in May, a Huber Heights, Ohio 21+ nightclub with a history of violent incidents drew fire for planning a club night celebrating the 18th birthday of an Ohio State quarterback, thus getting him in trouble with the NCAA. The public's outrage over the club's role in sullying the good name of a prominent athlete seemed a bigger smudge on its reputation than arrests for drug possession, gun possession, and an assault of an officer that took place at the business.

Smoking: In many counties/cities with smoking bans in place, nightclubs that violate are given a slap on the wrist and a relatively small fine. New York City, however, is actively trying to shut down nightclubs that promote smoking and routinely ignore the ban. Last year, the city attempted to shut down Chelsea's M2 Ultralounge, which had a long history of violence, for repeated smoking ban violations.

Reupholstering a sofa: Following the execution-style murder of two men leaving New York City's Roam in 2009, the city hit the nightspot with $20,000 in code violation fines in an attempt to shut it down. Among the violations: "unauthorized renovations." But what the state liquor board called renovations, the club owner called cosmetic changes, including reupholstering an old sofa and hanging new curtains.

Jell-O wrestling and other "inappropriate events": Nudity in close proximity to alcohol sales is pretty much a regulatory no-no, nationwide. But officials in Redding, Calif., seemed particularly outraged by Jell-O and/or baby oil wrestling that took place at Club H20, an establishment with a history of violent incidents, in 2009. That year, the club threw the book at the business for a Jell-O match, a K-Y lubricant match, and a chocolate syrup match while also attempting to penalize the club following a parking lot assault during which a woman was brutally beaten.

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