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Rojas v. Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 26, 2016

PEDRO ALMAZO ROJAS, ET AL.
v.
BOARD OF LIQUOR LICENSE COMMISSIONERS FOR BALTIMORE CITY

          Wright, Kehoe, Arthur, JJ.

          OPINION

          WRIGHT, J.

         This appeal arises from a judgment of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City entered on June 23, 2015, which affirmed the decision of appellee, the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City ("Liquor Board"), finding that appellants, Pedro Almazo Rojas, Carlos Navarro Sotelo, and Amigos Bar, Inc. t/a Amigos Bar violated Rule 4.05(a) "Prohibited Hours" and Rule 4.18 "Illegal Conduct" of the Rules and Regulations for the Baltimore City Liquor Board ("Liquor Board Rules"). Accordingly, the circuit court upheld the sanctions imposed by the Liquor Board, which included a four-day suspension, a $3, 000.00 fine, and a $125.00 administrative fee.[1] On July 10, 2015, appellants timely appealed.

         Questions Presented

         Appellants ask:

1. Did the Liquor Board err in finding [appellants] guilty of violating Liquor Board Rule 4.05(a) Prohibited Hours, where [appellants were] not open past 1:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on November 2, 2014?
2. Did the Liquor Board err in finding [appellants] guilty of violating Liquor Board Rule 4.18 Illegal Conduct, where two patrons were dancing together on November 2, 2014?
3. Did the Liquor Board deny [appellants] a fair hearing by reviewing letters ex parte from two city councilmen and a community association official requesting that the Liquor Board impose the maximum penalty allowed?

         We answer "no" to the first and third questions, and as to the second question, the Liquor Board concedes that it erred in finding that appellants violated Rule 4.18. As such, we uphold the Liquor Board's finding of a Rule 4.05(a) violation, reverse its finding of a Rule 4.18 violation, and remand the case to the circuit court with instructions to remand to the Liquor Board so that it can reassess the sanctions accordingly.

         Facts

         Amigos Bar is a tavern business located at 400 South Eaton Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, for which Rojas and Sotelo served as the liquor licensees. Appellants[2]hold a Baltimore City Class D Liquor License authorizing the sale of beer, wine, and liquor at Amigos Bar. The liquor license permits alcohol sales "at any time except from [] 1:00 A.M. until 6:00 A.M. daily and no sales on Sunday from 1:00 A.M. until 6:00 A.M. Monday unless such hours shall be further extended or limited by law." In addition, Amigos Bar has a Certificate of Occupancy specifying that it may "continue to use 1st [floor] of premises for a tavern with out [sic] live entertainment . . . ."

         On November 2, 2014, at 1:23 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time ("EDT"), Baltimore City Police Lieutenant William Colburn and Baltimore City Liquor Inspector Tommy Karanikolis were conducting random checks of liquor licenses throughout the Southeastern District of Baltimore City when they noticed that Amigos Bar appeared to be open. Lt. Colburn knew the time restrictions on Amigos Bar's license from previous experience, [3] and both men knew that on that night, Daylight Saving Time would end at 2:00 a.m. EDT, at which time Eastern Standard Time ("EST") would resume.[4]

         Inspector Karanikolis approached Amigos Bar first. He saw a bouncer outside and a sign indicating that the tavern was open. Upon entering the building, Inspector Karanikolis observed about 13 or 14 people with drinks. Although he did not see anyone actually drinking their beverages, he noted that the patrons had drinks inches away from them, and he saw people paying for drinks as they left the bar.

         Lt. Colburn entered the tavern approximately two minutes later and observed the same: numerous alcoholic drinks on the bar and in the bar area, about 12 to 15 patrons seated around the bar or standing, many with drinks inches away from them. He also saw two individuals dancing together to loud music.[5] Lt. Colburn then "ordered the establishment to close, turn the music off and have patrons exit the establishment."

         By notice dated November 4, 2014, the Liquor Board cited appellants with violation of Rule 4.05(a), for being open and operating Amigos Bar past 1 a.m., and Rule 4.18, for having "live entertainment" (i.e., "2 people dancing on the first floor area of the establishment while music was being played"), on November 2, 2014. The Liquor Board held a hearing on December 11, 2014, at which time appellants, represented by counsel, were tasked with showing why its liquor license should not be suspended or revoked. With regard to Rule 4.05(a), counsel for appellants argued that Amigos Bar complied with the code because the statute "makes [no] clarification" regarding Daylight Saving Time and "as long as they close by the second one o'clock they have complied with the statute." Counsel further argued that there was no violation of Rule 4.18 because patron dancing, as opposed to a "dance performance, " did not fall within the definition of "live entertainment."

         Following the hearing, the chairman of the Liquor Board rejected appellants' arguments, "rule[d] that the facts are clear" and "found the licensee responsible, " thereby recommending a "closing of four days" and a "$3, 000 fine because . . . it's a subsequent offense."[6] The remaining two commissioners on the Liquor Board agreed. One commissioner noted that despite Amigos Bar being located in a district that allows dancing and live entertainment, appellants did not "get approval from zoning to have dancing at the location." In addition, the other commissioner stated that, with regard to the daylight saving time issue, "it's a clever argument, but . . . it's clear that there was a violation."

         Counsel for appellants argued for mitigation of the penalty, prompting the Liquor Board to refer to three letters that it had received on the day of the hearing, over appellants' objection. Two of the letters were from Baltimore City Councilmen Brandon M. Scott and James B. Kraft, respectively, and one was from Kevin L. Bernhard, a Liquor Board member, on behalf of the Highlandtown Community Association, Inc. All three letters asked the Liquor Board to consider or impose the maximum penalty, which at that time included revocation or suspension of the license, and/or "a fine ...


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