J's Sports Cafe Mar 14 Liquor Hearing Recap

Bottom Line:
At the end of a nearly 3-hour long "Show Cause" hearing, the Liquor Board fined J's Sports Cafe $10,000 and, after considerable discussion, decided to not suspend its liquor license pending the already scheduled
License Renewal Protest Hearing on May 2 (notice).

J's Sports Cafe committed to operating in future as a regular restaurant, with a full menu and operating hours patterned after other restaurants serving liquor in the Laurel area. They agreed to have the Liquor Board remove from their Class B license (and have DER remove from their Use and Occupancy Permit) all previous permissions for patron dancing, live music, DJs , cover charges, and other such "entertainment" related activities. Moreover, they committed to meet with elected officials and community leaders to determine more precisely what the community deems to be additional conditions required beyond that for them to continue to operate.

No citizen statements are permitted at Show Cause Hearings. But because of the petition signed by residents, and letters from elected officials (County Councilman Tom Dernoga and District 23 State Delegation) calling for the revocation of J's liquor license, citizens will be able to give statements at the upcoming License Renewal Protest Hearing on May 2 (notice).

J's Sports Cafe was closed on February 2 for lack of a proper Use and Occupancy permit (from the Department of Environmental Resources) and will remain closed until a Use and Occupancy permit is granted, and other violations are resolved. (For history see J's Sports Cafe)

Summary:Even though the January 28 shooting murder at J's Sports Cafe occurred under the management of the "new owner" (Alex Kim), this Show Cause hearing was actually a case against the previous owner -- because the current owner was operating under the previous owner's liquor license under a management agreement. Both the previous owner (Woo Hun Jung) and new owner (Alex Kim) agreed to the new license restrictions listed above. The new owner (Kim) still has not picked up the transferred liquor license that was approved for him in early January.

There was testimony under oath by Councilman Tom Dernoga, District 23 Delegates Gerron Levi and Distrct 23 State Senator Doug Peters, Police District 6 Acting Commander Scott Haines, another police officer, the Liquor Board's own Inspectors, and an advocate for the City of Laurel.

Then the Liquor Board established that all of the alleged violations of the conditions of the new owner's transferred license had in fact been violated -- each of which the Liquor Board Chairman cited into the hearing record.

The new owner initially testified that when he took over the Cafe, he had not been aware that previous shootings were associated with J's Sports Cafe. But he was reminded by Liquor Board members of his testimony in September 2006 when he said that he had been aware of those shootings. Those shootings were the very reason he had been required to create a security plan both inside the Cafe and in the parking lot. When asked directly by the Board, the new owner could not confirm whether on January 28 he was actually in compliance with the Security Plan that he had previously submitted to the Liquor Board and committed to as a condition of his transferred liquor license.

Councilman Tom Dernoga testified: J's Sports Cafe had circumvented P.G. County laws regarding patron dancing by getting a permit from the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission -- not indicative of respect for P.G. County law. Regarding that and operating without a Use and Occupancy Permit - "when you have owners who think the laws don't apply to them, is there any surprise that there are problems". The Councilman urged that the license be revoked -- but if citizens can agree on acceptable conditions for J's Sports Cafe's to continue operation -- he would support the citizens. But the proffered menu is not sufficient to qualify J's Sports Cafe as a Restaurant. If clientèle come mostly from outside the community, how does that benefit our community? We need a business that will make Crystal Plaza more successful for the community -- a real restaurant, not a sports bar masquerading as a real restaurant.

The new owners said their menu was just a draft -- based on a menu from a "successful restaurant", but, when asked by a Liquor Board member, the new owner declined to provide the name of that restaurant. Likewise, the proffered revised floor plan still showed a "band stand". The Cafe's lawyer clarified that the band stand would be removed and replaced with tables. A Liquor Board member told the new owner, "next time do not bring Drafts" of proffers -- show us what you are actually doing -- not drafts.

The City of Laurel advocate testified that their concern about J's Sports Cafe stems from their mutual assistance agreements with Prince George's County police -- so Laurel officers have to respond when there is are shootings at J's Sports Cafe. He said his wife is an example of those who won't go to Crystal Plaza for fear of the violence associated with J's Sports Cafe. The City of Laurel would support what the citizens of South Laurel approve -- but the city is averse to continuation of live music, DJs, patron dancing, etc.

The Deputy Chief Inspector read into the record the Chief Inspector's report in the series of shooting incidents and evidence for each license violation, determining that the peace and safety of the community was at risk.

P.G. Police District 6 Acting Commander Scott Haines testified to details of the three shooting murders, and several other shooting incidents from 2005 to Jan 28, 2007, including gunshots outside of J's Sports Cafe that hit the Rite Aid, the Post Office and the Red Roof Inn. On one occasion, a J's Sports Cafe patron declared to an officer, "I have no problem shooting police", after which he fired a total of 12 shots at police officers and fled without apprehension.

The Commander said that since October 2006 he has had to put all of his on-duty officers (from overlapping swing and mid-shifts for double presence) at J's Sports Cafe, as a show of force and to clear the parking lot at closing. Since J's Sports Cafe was closed on Feb 2, he has not had to do that -- and there have been no calls for police at Crystal Plaza since that closure -- so his officers are now available to provide law enforcement throughout the Laurel-Beltsville area.

One officer testified about the great difficulty of actually preventing shootings in the parking lot with as many as 300 patrons because you would have to watch everyone -- necessitating about "120" off-duty police officers, although about 10 was considered necessary for normal crowd control. The implication was that no number of off-duty police officers could guarantee there would be no shootings. And at one point the new owner testified that "No amount of security can prevent something from happening 100%".

The new owner testified that he had been "transitioning" to less problematic bands, but the Liquor Board had indications that such bands had been scheduled even after Jan 28. Before the Feb 2 shutdown, a super bowl party in apparent violation of the license conditions was planned and promoted featuring "Angel -- Miss XXL -- Eye Candy of the Year". A Liquor Board member expressed dismay that the owner thought he could "transition" over 3 months the scheduling of such bands instead of complying immediately with all the conditions of the newly transferred license.

Other specific violations cited by the Liquor Board were: permitting band promoters in the Cafe, having too many bartenders (8) and bouncers (14) compared to wait-staff (only 1).

Near the end of the hearing, before the Board's vote (above), the lawyer for J's Sports Cafe summarized as follows: J's new owner knows that change is needed. He has made efforts recently to meet with the community and he regrets not meeting with the community before. He asks to meet with community leaders. He should have looked more into the past violence at the Cafe before he took it over. He commits to changes:
no more patron dancing, no live music, no DJs , no cover charges, and no other such "entertainment" related activities. The lawyer asserted that the community is better off with this new owner who has made these commitments, than some other unknown people. He asked the Liquor Board to allow the new owner to keep his transferred license and hold off on any fines.
But at times the new owner had continued to refer to the proffered new business format as a "sports bar restaurant".

At one point, a man in the audience stood up and declared that the January 28 murder victim was a his half-brother and that his family will be suing J's Sports Cafe's new owner for not carrying out the security plan and other conditions which he committed to when the license was transferred to him. The Liquor Board Chairman instructed the other board members to disregard those remarks, which were not under oath, because citizen statements are not taken at Show Cause hearings.