Liquor permit law extended

With the extension of a program that increases police involvement in liquor license renewals, New Haven bars and clubs must stay on their best behavior.

Beginning in January 2012 under Senate Bill 880, the pilot program requires New Haven establishments filing for liquor permit renewals to notify the chief of the New Haven Police Department, who may offer his opinion on the renewal to the state Department of Consumer Protection, which issues permits. Although the program was originally due to expire at the end of this year, the extension, which passed 18 to 0 in the state senate last week, prolongs the program’s duration to June 2014.

“Most permit holders abide by the law and take the terms of holding that permit seriously,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney in a statement accompanying the renewal. “However, as we’ve seen in the city of New Haven, some individuals do abuse the system. While local police deal on the front line when there are issues at these bars, it makes little sense that they would have no ability to comment should a permit come up for renewal.”

Before the original bill was approved two years ago, the NHPD chief had no say in preventing or condoning potential liquor license renewals. Police involvement was limited to initial license applications, and the NHPD was not notified of additional renewal applications. The bill was instigated by conflicts between government officials and “problem bars,” such as a case in which Taurus Café owner Larry Livingston, after getting his liquor permit revoked, obtained a new one by having his sister and girlfriend apply. The currently active nightclub, deemed a “nexus” of crime and “thuggery” by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in 2011, has been a center of violence and illegal activity for years, according to city officials.

“This is a public safety issue,” said Adam Joseph, spokesman for the Senate Democrats. “The chief of police should be able to weigh in on the public safety impact that a license renewal may have.”

NHPD spokesman David Hartman said the Department of Consumer Protection, a state agency that ultimately denies or approves liquor license renewals, may not be aware of problems occurring at a local level.

“The police department has the most expertise in chronic problems that the state may not be aware of, varying from violent crimes and drug-dealing to service of people who are underage,” Hartman said.

He said that the police would first attempt to mitigate any problems before denying a permit. Recalling only two bars and nightclubs in New Haven that may have been denied a liquor permit renewal since the bill was introduced, he added the majority of New Haven establishments comply with state laws, a statement echoed by all four club managers and employees interviewed.

“[The bill] is just one hurdle to go through, and it probably won’t affect us much,” said Eric Dickerson, manager of the Anchor Café. “We’ve had very limited intervention from the police.”

Toad’s manager Ed Bingus also said the bill was “not really a big deal,” explaining that the facility does its best to abide by state laws.

But not all reception has been positive. BAR waitress Kate Turnbull said she is “not a fan” of the stricter liquor permit renewal process, though she said that she “doubts” that it affects her place of employment. And prior to initial approval of the bill in May 2011, club owner Jason Cutler protested the pilot program by filing a lawsuit against the city in the U.S. District Court.

Looney, who led the passage of the bill’s extension, said he believes it is possible that the pilot program will be made permanent. Discussions regarding the transformation of the bill into a permanent law will take place next year, Looney said, and other Connecticut cities, such as Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury, are interested in creating similar programs.

The original law was passed on June 8, 2011.

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