End of the Zombie Liquor License? Maryland Court of Special Appeals says 180-day rule is valid

Court of Special Appeals rules that the law is actually the law. How about that?

[Correction appended]

The state's second highest court has ruled, apparently for the first time ever, that a controversial and often-ignored Baltimore liquor law that requires unused licenses to expire after a year's disuse is, in fact, the law. 

"The transfer of a liquor license in Baltimore City often involves issues of life and death, and in some instances, zombies and phantoms," judges at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals write in a ruling reported yesterday. 

"Zombies" in this context are legally dead liquor licenses that somehow (with the connivance of the liquor board) shamble on into the night, long after their expiration under Article 2B of the state statutes. 

Since 2000, the so-called "180-day rule," in which the legislature deemed that a Baltimore liquor license must cease to be if the establishment stops serving alcohol for six months (or, if a "hardship extension" is granted, a year), was meant to kill off licenses in a city that has too many.

This, according to former State Sen. George Della, who wrote the law, and who actually testified to this at the liquor board when the case was heard there three years ago.  

The case before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals involved Crossbar der Biergarten, a planned joint by Brian McComas (who also operates Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill). The original plan was to expand and rename the old Turner's, and the neighborhood, citing an expected proliferation of woo-girls and dude-bros, opposed it. The liquor board opposed it too, at first. 

By then years had passed and the license was legally dead. But in Baltimore, laws are made to be broken. The bar appealed and the Circuit Court agreed with the bar owners, ruling that the liquor board had erred when it stuck to the letter of the law. 

So the neighborhood association appealed.

Meanwhile, Crossbar had a new liquor license transferred to it, and came to an agreement with the neighborhood association. So the bar, which opened last month (mmmm, beer), will not be affected by the ruling.

But the ruling is momentous. For the first time, the state's second highest court has said, in a reported opinion, that the so-called 180-day rule is real and final and not to be ignored or overruled by sympathetic or pliable liquor board members or circuit court judges. The only possible appeal now is to the Court of Appeals, which seems unlikely, given the facts of the case.

"I can understand the Crossbar owners' frustration," says Becky Witt, a lawyer with the Community Law Center and operator of the Booze News Blog. "The Liquor Board (read: Sam Daniels) erroneously told them for years that the license was valid. It wasn't. But that doesn't resurrect a dead license."

The Crossbar case was further complicated by the fact that the licensees paid their renewal fees in good faith, believing the advice that Daniels, the executive secretary, had apparently given—also in good faith. The law was so seldom enforced, it made no sense to think the liquor board would kill a $50,000 (the typical going price) license over something so trifling. 

"Something that people often misstate about the 180-day rule, they say that the Board 'killed' a license," Witt says. "This is totally inaccurate—a license expires by operation of law after 180 days. The Board is not the murderer of the license. the Board is the coroner, declaring that the license has expired of natural causes (aka, the passage of time)." 

So sayeth the Maryland Court of Appeals.

[Note: this post has been corrected to indicate the correct rank of the court that made this decision: the Court of Special Appeals is the state's second highest]

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