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IA: How far should Iowa go to crack down on nuisance bars? Here’s what Davenport proposed

IA: How far should Iowa go to crack down on nuisance bars? Here’s what Davenport proposed

The Courier
By Tom Barton
February 8, 2022

Iowa bars could be taken to court and held liable for shootings, assaults and riots committed by unruly patrons who spill out of their establishment into alleys, streets and adjacent property under proposed legislation.

An Iowa House subcommittee advanced a bill last week being pushed by the city of Davenport to amend state law to help cities shut down nuisance bars for safety concerns.

City officials have requested lawmakers allow cities to bring a case before local district courts to abate public safety nuisances caused by alcohol establishments, rather than having to rely on the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

The issue is a familiar one to Waterloo officials, who over the years have tried many times to deny liquor licenses to establishments considered nuisance properties, only to have the denials overturned by the state. During fiscal year 2011, the City Council rejected eight liquor licenses — all of which were successfully appealed by the applicants through the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

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Davenport tried several times to deny the now-shuttered Shenanigan’s Irish Pub at 303 W. Third St. a liquor license based on its public safety history but was overruled by the ABD, which is responsible for regulating and investigating complaints about alcohol establishments.

Police responded to more than 2,000 calls for service to the establishment over a three-year period before the bar shut down in December 2019.

The final straw was a large fight that broke out at the pub during which a gun was fired and a bullet went through the window of Mac’s Tavern, located across the street at 316 W. Third St., and narrowly missed a patron.

Yet, the bar was not closed because the state suspended its liquor license but rather because the landlord terminated its lease.

Going through local courts, which typically handle nuisance complaints in all other capacities, will bring parity to the process and, hopefully, swifter resolution, according to city officials.

“Had this amendment been in place at the time, the city of Davenport and local district courts could have been able to deal with this grave nuisance at a local level to address this violent behavior rapidly as opposed allowing the nuisance to continue for three years,” city of Davenport officials wrote in a statement in support of the bill.

House Study Bill 633 would allow city and county attorneys to sue alcohol establishments for creating a serious threat to public safety and seek a temporary injunction prior to trial.

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Licensed food establishments that sell alcohol, such as restaurants, would be exempt.

The bill states a public safety nuisance exists if “it is established by clear and convincing evidence that an owner, manager, employee, contemporaneous patron or guest of the licensed premises commits any of the following acts either on the premises or within 1,000 feet of the premises.”

The acts include unlawful use of a firearm or offensive weapon, assault with a dangerous weapon, or being the scene of a riot on three or more dates within a 12-month period.

Should a district court determine a threat to public safety exists, the court could temporarily close the business, revoke its alcohol license or require a change in business practice or operations. It could also require the owner post bond to keep the property open pending final resolution of the lawsuit.

Lobbyists for the city of Des Moines and Metropolitan Coalition have registered in support of the bill. The Iowa Restaurant Association, which represents Iowa’s restaurant and beverage industry, is registered in opposition to the bill.

State Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, a member of the House Public Safety subcommittee, raised concerns about holding establishments liable for activity that occurs beyond their property and clarifying which food establishments would be exempt.

“I think it has to be (limited) to the parking lot, something they control,” Olson said.

He suggested lawmakers instead focus on amending the burden of proof required to revoke a beer, wine or liquor license before the ABD.

Davenport city officials argue current code limiting the prevention of illegal activity to the licensed premise, including the grounds and parking lot, allows owners to skirt responsibility by pushing fights and other illegal acts out their door onto other property.

“What this bill is doing is acknowledging that there may be patrons of an alcohol establishment … who drink and then maybe right outside the establishment, though not on the licensed premise, are creating a public safety nuisance,” Sarah Ott, chief strategy officer for the city of Davenport, said after the hearing.

Ott, though, said the city is willing to look at a different radius, “if that is what helps get this passed.” The city originally proposed within 1,500 feet for a licensed premise.

Similar efforts have failed to gain traction in the Legislature in previous years over objections from Iowa’s restaurant and beverage industry.