Baltimore bar owners are strictly liable for all the illegal behavior of anyone they employ, whether they knew about it ahead of time or not.
So ruled the Maryland Court of Appeals on Feb. 17, overruling lower courts in a 2014 case from The Block’s Club Harem.
Back then, an undercover vice cop paid a visit. A dancer named Jamaica Brickhouse, “conversated” with the officer suggestively ("Brickhouse exposed her breasts to Detective Jackson and invited him to touch them,” as the judges delicately put it. “He complied.”). Then she allegedly offered some VIP Room specialties.
Then nothing happened. The dancer went on stage, the cop left, and eight months later, Brickhouse received a summons charging her with prostitution. The case was dropped.
The long time between the alleged incident and the criminal charge moved Baltimore Liquor Board Commissioner Dana Moore to vote against sanctioning Club Harem licensee Steven Kougl. She was out-voted, 2-1, and the board imposed a 30-day suspension.
Kougl fought in court, claiming he should not be held legally responsible for her actions because he had no idea, and no way of knowing, that Brickhouse solicited the cop (assuming that she actually did).
It’s a fine point of law.
Kougl won at the Court of Special Appeals.
At issue was the legal question of whether the liquor board’s rules, and the law, impose “strict liability” on the licensee. Rule 4.18 says, “No licensee shall commit or allow the commission on his premises of any act which shall be contrary to any federal, state or local statute, law or ordinance or against the public peace, safety, health, welfare, quiet or morals.”
Though some courts have found that words like “suffer” and “permit” do require knowledge on the licensee’s part, in this case, the state’s highest court found, not.
“Therefore, the Liquor Board was not required to show that Kougl knew or should have known about his employee’s actions to find a violation of the Rules and impose a sanction,” the judges decided. “Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.”
Becky Lundberg Witt of the Community Law Center says the ruling is a blow to strip club owners, who have been successfully arguing for months that the lower court's decision in the Kougl case means that the Liquor Board has to prove intent—at least when it comes to strippers taking liberties.
“The licensee's knowledge is irrelevant for every other violation except solicitation of prostitution (until this case),” she writes in an email to City Paper. “If an employee sells to a minor: violation, whether the licensee knew it or not. If a bartender overserves a customer: violation.”
Witt notes that the Liquor Board has even held bar owners responsible for the actions of customers, such as when they’re caught selling drugs. So carving out an exception based on Jamaica Brickhouse’s alleged behavior seemed weird.
“I never understood why the Board sometimes treated solicitation differently than these other violations,” Witt writes. “I think that licensees' attorneys have gotten a lot of mileage out of a distinction without a difference in the law.”
Melvin Kodenski, Kougl’s lawyer in the case (and a lot of other licensees’ lawyer) was on vacation and unavailable for comment.