On the last day of the NBA finals this summer, two men walked into a crowded Uptown bar, ordered a pitcher of beer, sat down and began surveying the crowd.
After about 45 minutes, one of the men made a phone call, and police suddenly stormed the place, separating patrons by their age: over 21, 18 to 20, and under 18. That last group of underage teens was too much for the Alcohol Beverage Control Board to bear on Tuesday, as they decided to suspend the license of Friar Tuck’s on Freret Street for 30 days starting in mid-January.
“What about the nine 17-year-olds, 10 percent or more of the entire crowd at the time this raid was conducted?” asked board chair Rodney Seydel after a lengthy description of the bar’s procedures to check customers’ ages. “How and why were they allowed into this facility?”
Based on a complaint about Friar Tuck’s from an upset parent, NOPD Sgts. Stephen Rodrigue and Sammy Palumbo initiated their simple undercover operation shortly before 9 p.m. June 17 by walking into the bar in street clothes, they testified during Tuesday’s five-hour hearing. After watching the bartender serve drinks without checking any IDs to a crowd that appeared young, they said, they called in uniformed officers who came in and demanded identification of everyone inside.
Of the approximately 60 people in the bar, 47 were under the age of 21, and 11 of those were under 18, the officers testified based on their report from the night.
Attorney Thomas Milliner, representing bar owner Jason Blitch, questioned the officers along the lines that made up the core of his argument in the hearing: Who, specifically, of those 47 were drinking? Though the officers repeatedly testified that “the majority” of the people inside had drinks, only one officer could recall one specific individual teen with a drink in hand. Without those specifics, the city cannot prove that the generality that underage drinking took place, Milliner argued.
Milliner also asked repeatedly why the officers did not search the underage patrons for fake IDs. Friar Tuck’s goes to great lengths to prevent underage drinking, Milliner and the bar’s current staff said, using a sophisticated scanner to check and record all IDs that are presented, and giving wristbands and hand stamps to separate drinking-age patrons from those between 18 and 20, merely old enough to get in but not drink. Thus, they argued, many of those in the bar must have presented some sort of false identification to get in.
“The procedures were in place. The police did not do their job,” Milliner said. “If there was an individual drinking alcohol, that individual should have been cited and should have been searched.”
At the time, the bar’s security staff usually started its ID-checking shift around 9 p.m., according to testimony from former bartenders Patrick Reagin and Shannon Bingham. The night of the raid, in fact, bouncers had begun looking for IDs in the crowd and checking it at the door just before the uniformed police arrived.
But from the bar’s opening at 4 p.m. until the night shift, the responsibility to check IDs is on the lone bartender during happy hour, the two former bartenders said. And on June 17, with the bar unusually full during those early hours for the Celtics-Lakers game, there’s no evidence that any carding took place, argued deputy city attorney Dan MacNamara in closing – there is only broad testimony that the majority of the crowd was underage, and the majority of the crowd was drinking.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take for this individual to believe that persons under the age of 18 frequent his establishment,” MacNamara said. “Does anyone on this board really believe that you needed any kind of ID at all on June 17 to consume alcohol at Friar Tuck’s? Should this be someone who is permitted to have an ABO license, someone who cannot stop this behavior?”
What Friar Tuck may have been doing properly to keep minors out was of seemingly little interest to the board, whose members initially voted to punish the bar immediately after the city finished its case, before Milliner had a chance to call his own witnesses. He protested that the rules of any court would allow him to present a defense, however, so the board resumed the hearing for two more hours – but with no change in the outcome.
The raid was not the only charge against the bar. Friar Tuck’s was brought before the board about five years ago on an underage-drinking charge, and has also been late on its sales taxes, occupancy licenses and alcohol permits, the bar owner admitted. The fee problems stem from the death of his mother, who was the bar’s bookkeeper, Blitch said, noting that he had to use the majority of her life-insurance policy to pay off debts associated with the bar that he discovered after she died, and that some of those issues have yet to be resolved.
The board took those sad circumstances into account, choosing not to penalize Blitch for the tax issues. Board member Nyka Scott, who made the motion for the 30-day suspension, asked that it be permitted to start Jan. 14, after the busy holiday season, to give Blitch the maximum opportunity to make enough money to pay off his back fees.
The city attorney also asked for a higher fine than the $500 that Scott recommended, but the board members said the threat of losing his alcohol license permanently on the next offense should be ample incentive to improve security there.