Nine months after the city's series of raids on bars and nightclubs—code-named Operation Sobering Thought—City Attorney Tom Carr's office has yet to win a single conviction. Several of the cases have been tossed out for problems with evidence, while others have been bargained down to a slap on the wrist. The city attorney's office still claims the operation was a success, but several attorneys representing bouncers and bartenders arrested in the raids say the city simply gave up and settled a number of cases it knew it couldn't win. "They were aware there was some questionable legality to their cases," says Bill Bowman, who represented a bartender charged for overserving at Tommy's. In the end, he says, "I think they didn't want egg on their face."
Last August, the city sent undercover officers into 15 bars and clubs around the city in response to complaints about violence and other mayhem associated with Seattle nightlife. Two weeks later, police made a show of force—sending in shock troops to round up 17 bartenders, bouncers, and bar backs for allegedly overserving customers and allowing minors and guns into bars. All told, the city filed charges against 26 employees for violations of the state liquor code.
Attorney David Gehrke—who represented an employee at Sugar charged with overserving—says in 30 years of practicing law, he's never seen prosecutors so aggressively pursue charges for such technically minor offenses. Generally, Gehrke says, offenders receive a citation and a fine of $250 to $500, rather than a year in jail. "People that get their second DUI don't get that kind of time," he says.
But shortly after the initial shock and awe of the city's $52,000 operation wore off, the city's cases started to come apart.
Perhaps the most startling example of the operation's sloppiness comes from David Romano, a five-foot-eight Hispanic man who was arrested weeks after the sting for allegedly letting underage girls into Tia Lou's in Belltown. Romano got off when prosecutors realized they'd have trouble proving he was the same six-foot-two blond bouncer identified in the corresponding police report. In another case, the city attorney's office sought a year of jail time for bouncer Daniel DeLeon, charged with letting an undercover officer bring a gun into Tabella in Belltown. It took a jury just 20 minutes to find DeLeon not guilty.
Attorney Matthew Leyba represented DeLeon during his trial; he says prosecutors ignored some evidence because they were too focused on making an example of workers like his client. "In DeLeon's case, there was... some overzealous prosecution," Leyba says. "It was a waste of money [that] it had to go to trial."
Surprisingly, prosecutors seem to agree. "We were all hyped up from the chase," says Derek Smith, the city attorney's liaison to SPD's vice unit. "In the grand scheme of things, [seeking harsh sentences] was probably unwarranted under the circumstances."
Although the city has yet to secure any convictions—so far, in addition to DeLeon, seven cases have been dismissed, four cases are pending, and 14 employees have received "dispositional continuances," which require them to stay out trouble for one year—Smith, who helped set up the raids, still believes that overall, the operation was a success. He says he's heard of nightclubs changing their procedures—carding everyone who comes in the door, for example. Although Smith says he doesn't think raids are the ultimate solution to nightlife issues, he says that's all the city can do for now. "The reality is, if you look at the problems where the bars are, this is a huge [issue] for the city," he says. "We're doing surgery on a very difficult situation with a hammer and a wrench. It's going to be a lot better next time."