For the first time since Statesboro City Council resumed Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance hearings last fall, a business declined to plead guilty, instead challenging the way the ordinance is being applied.
Wild Wing Café on Aspen Heights Drive still ended up with a warning Tuesday on council’s finding of a first-time violation. So did four other businesses. But attorney Lovett Bennett Jr., who stood with Wild Wing Café license holder Casey Lynn Scarborough, argued that the ordinance empowers the council to suspend or revoke an alcohol license for a major violation, not just any violation.
“Assuming that one sale of alcohol to someone who is underage is a major violation is a little bit of a stretch under your own ordinance,” Bennett told the mayor and council.
He also observed that the state law empowering cities to enforce alcoholic beverage licensing requires that governing bodies, such as the council, set “ascertainable standards,” but that Statesboro’s ordinance never defines what a “major violation” is.
“In fact it doesn’t even describe ‘violation,’ so there’s a problem there that I think needs to be addressed somehow, either here or perhaps in the Superior Court setting,” Bennett said.
Another of his arguments was that the state law, referenced in the city ordinance, prohibits “knowingly” furnishing alcohol to someone under 21 years old, not accidentally doing so.
Employee not on trial
Taylor Burroughs, a Georgia Southern University student with a Brooklet address, was the Wild Wing Café employee reported by Statesboro police to have served a beer to an underage, undercover officer Dec. 19. Burroughs, who did not attend the hearing, was taking a test Tuesday morning, Bennett said.
Burroughs wasn’t on trial. The misdemeanor charge against him won’t come to court for a couple of months yet, Bennett said. The question before City Council was whether to take action, which for a first offense is limited to a warning or a one-day suspension, against the restaurant’s alcohol license.
But much of the discussion centered on what Burroughs did in reading the undercover buyer’s identification.
In a printed statement presented to the council, Burroughs said that when the young woman asked for a bottle of Bud Light, he asked to see her ID, which “was bent and not in the best of condition.” Looking at her picture, he saw the birth date as 05/9/1991. That would have made her 23.
But when a Statesboro police sergeant came to the business the next day and showed Burroughs an enlarged photo of the ID, he saw it said 05/9/1994, Burroughs acknowledged in writing. In other words, the young woman was 20.
Burroughs was on the honor roll for four years at Southeast Bulloch High School, where he was a Governor’s Honors and Georgia Merit participant and senior captain of the football and baseball teams. At Georgia Southern, he has a 3.7 grade-point average and holds a Zell Miller Scholarship, Bennett noted, arguing that Burroughs was not someone who would intentionally violate the law.
“We’re all human. We all make mistakes from time to time,” said Bennett. “This young man says he made a mistake. He looked at the year, made a mistake. What evidence do we have that he knowingly, intentionally violated the law? We don’t have any, in this case.”
Not ‘strict liability’
The city may want to enforce a “strict liability” standard where knowledge or intent wouldn’t matter, but that is not what is in the ordinance, Bennett observed.
Lt. Rob Bryan, who presented the cases for the license hearings, said the Statesboro Police Department’s position was that Burroughs knowingly violated the law.
“He is a gatekeeper when you’re dealing with serving alcohol to that individual,” Bryan said. “He had the license in his hand. He had all opportunity to sit there and inspect it. He had the opportunity to converse with the undercover officer and verify that that was her, ask a question, ‘What is your date of birth?’”
In response to a question from Bennett, Bryan said that police had conducted compliance checks at Wild Wing Café “numerous” other times since September.
“And Wild Wings has been in compliance all of those times,” Bryan said. “The night that Wild Wings was found in violation, there were 20 other businesses that looked at that same license and were not in violation.”
City Attorney Alvin Leaphart advised the council that there was evidence of a knowing sale.
“There’s evidence that the person was presented an ID that showed a birthdate of a person being under the age of 21. That’s evidence that a knowing sale took place,” Leaphart said. “The evidence that there was a mistake made, whether that’s even relevant evidence is another question, is the self-serving testimony of the defendant himself.”
Such testimony is usually “given little or no evidentiary weight,” Leaphart added.
Councilman Phil Boyum asked whether it was really “self-serving,” since Burroughs was not on trial, but Leaphart said Burroughs did have interests at stake.
Mayor Jan Moore asked whether Burroughs would still be employed at the restaurant if, instead of giving the statement, he had said he knowingly served someone underage.
Scarborough answered “no.”
Leaphart also observed that state law requires verifying ages and suggested that violations need not be “major,” based on a different part of the city ordinance.
On separate motions, each by Councilman Gary Lewis and seconded by Councilman John Riggs, the council found Wild Wing Café in violation and then issued a warning.
With Councilman Travis Chance out of state, the votes were 4-0.
After requesting a continuance in February, Wild Wing Café had appeared first on Tuesday’s list of hearings, but Moore announced that she was moving it to last.
After the other hearings, Moore requested a recess so that she could meet with Scarborough and Bennett. This lasted more than 10 minutes before the hearing went forward.
The other four businesses, issued warnings after stating that first-offense violations had occurred Jan. 22, were Gate Petroleum No. 226 at 240 S. Main St., Gate Petroleum No. 227 at 700 Northside Drive E., Kevin’s Food Mart at 400 S. Zetterower Ave., and Walgreens at 516 Northside Drive E.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.