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Liquor establishments aren't happy about a proposal to allow the county board to conduct administrative hearings into liquor license suspensions. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Sheriff asks board for tougher liquor penalties

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Hubbard County liquor establishments that flout the law may have to answer to a new sheriff in the land - the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners.

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Last week Sheriff Cory Aukes asked the board to consider implementing administrative penalties if an establishment breaks the law, a consistent way of dealing with compliance failures.

Currently, only clerks and bartenders who break the law are subject to criminal penalties, Aukes said. The establishments as a whole can still have its annual liquor license renewed unless there's been egregious conduct. In those cases, Aukes cannot sign off on the renewal if there's been a liquor infraction, but that doesn't prevent the state from re-issuing a license.

The issue came to light earlier this year when officers were called to the parking lot of an establishment that held an after-hours party for its employees. Although the employees weren't charged for their drinks, the event still came under the umbrella of illegally operating after hours, County Attorney Don Dearstyne told the board.

What triggered the police call was that an inebriated employee struck another employee in the parking lot, Aukes told the board.

"We might have never known about it otherwise," he said.

The board, acting as a licensing authority, can take action against a liquor establishment in a civil proceeding. It can conduct an administrative hearing and suspend liquor licenses as penalties, Dearstyne told the board.

He asked the board to draft a policy, "Establish a procedure to treat all businesses the same."

"What are other counties doing?" asked commissioner Lyle Robinson.

"Other boards have administrative hearings," Dearstyne told the board. "You have the authority to sanction the establishment."

The board exerts local control over establishments in the county, but that seemed to make commissioner Cal Johannsen a bit uneasy.

"You want us to act as a court and hear this?" he questioned Aukes.

"This is better suited in a civil arena," Dearstyne said of license suspensions. Standards of proof are no longer "beyond a reasonable doubt," as in criminal cases. Civil cases require "clear and convincing " proof.

"That type of punishment is in your hands only," Aukes reiterated. "We can only charge the employee."

And Aukes said that can be frustrating to law enforcement if "it's compliance failures of the same establishment. If it's a different employee every time but the same establishment..." the business continues to operate.

"We're trying to fight those violations," he said.

The board's lukewarm reaction was partially due to the fact that the issue wasn't on the agenda.

"I feel like we got ambushed," complained board member Greg Larson after Aukes and Dearstyne had left the boardroom.

But others reasoned another tool in the county's arsenal against illegal liquor sales wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Liquor establishments, however, had the opposite reaction. None would agree to talk to the newspaper unless the names of their establishments, patrons or employees were used.

Two bar managers said the increase in patrols of their establishments had a chilling effect.

"It's killing our business," they said.

Squad cars from the Park Rapids Police Department, Hubbard County Sheriff's department and State Patrol constantly patrol parking lots and hide near the establishments to arrest patrons leaving, many complained.

An administrative penalty would just be piling on, they assert.

Since many establishments also sell pull-tabs, the businesses complained that tee-totaling customers who just want to play the jars even get followed leaving.

"Then they want us o contribute to their programs," one bartender complained.

Between compliance checks to catch establishments selling to minors and the constant patrols, he establishments contacted said they've seen a marked decrease in business over the last year or so.

Dearstyne commends law enforcement on the increased activity and said it will continue.

"I'm really proud of the work law officers have been doing in the last year," he said.

Commissioners asked the men to report back on a proposed policy, but did not agree they should jump into the civil law enforcement business.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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