Local Efforts to Clean-Up Nuisance Bars


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August 2008

When asked to define pornography, Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “I know it when I see it.” His words seem equality applicable to nuisance bars.

The line between a nuisance bar and a law-abiding establishment with incidental disturbances is not clearly drawn. What may seem like an excessive nuisance to one person is a favorite watering hole for another.

Valid nuisance complaints from the public or local authorities, however, may be a catalyst for administrative action, ultimately resulting in revocation or non-renewal of a license.

I. Common Complaints

Any licensed establishment could be considered a nuisance, depending upon whom you ask. To a sleeping neighbor, even a law-abiding bar may be considered an irritation because of patrons leaving at closing time, waking neighbors with car sounds and headlights. On the other hand, annoying someone by merely existing and operating in a normal fashion usually does not constitute a nuisance in the eyes of the law.

Nor can drug problems, violence and crime in a neighborhood be pinned upon a liquor store or bar just because of their proximity. In order for the establishment to be held accountable for the criminal behavior, the perpetrators or crimes must be linked back to the licensed premises.

Nevertheless, many recurrent complaints are well-founded. Frequently reported grievances include noise, violence and drug activity. Littering and loitering are also routinely the subject of complaints. Disruptive and antisocial behaviors of customer can often be connected to illegal actions of licensees such as sales to minors, over-service and after-hour sales.

II. Licensee Responsibility

Prevention of illegal activity on the premises, including the grounds and parking lot of a licensed establishment, is the responsibility of the licensee. Training staff to refuse service to intoxicated patrons and to be vigilant about checking identification are good methods to limiting a licensee’s exposure to problems. Complying with local building codes and zoning ordinances, as well as noise abatement laws, are also effective means of reducing complaints. Overall the best approach is to be mindful of your neighbors and the effects of your business on the neighborhood.

III. Being Held Accountable

The 21st Amendment grants states the authority to regulate the distribution of alcohol. Absent immediate danger to the public, however, authorities cannot confiscate a liquor license without due process of law.

If a local investigation concludes that a licensee is a nuisance, the hearing process will begin, either at the local level or with the Division. Once the Division enters a final decision, a licensee can still petition for judicial review.

During these hearings, a licensee’s compliance history can be taken into account, along with the nuisance complaint. The licensee may be required to prove that they still meet all the prerequisites of “good moral character,” and that the premises remains up to code. In addition, a pattern and practice of disregard of the law may be used as evidence for revoking or denying a license or renewal.

IV. Conclusion

It is the responsibility of licensees to ensure that their establishment and patrons do not become a nuisance to the neighborhood or authorities. Failure to do so may result in administrative action.

The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Commission will be holding a series of forums throughout the state to address Local Efforts to Clean-Up Nuisance Bars. Dates and locations will be available on the Division’s website, IowaABD.com. Please plan to attend a forum if you have questions or are interested in further discussing the important topic of nuisance bars.

Justice Potter suggests he will “know it when he sees it,” In the end, the Administrator will know it when he sees it, when it comes to nuisance bars.