Eight of the 27 defendants charged in last summer's nightclub sting Operation Sobering Thought ["The Saturday Night Massacre," Josh Feit, Sept 13], have rejected plea offers and agreed to set trial dates instead.
If the bouncers and bartenders charged in the sting are found guilty of allowing minors into bars and serving them alcohol, they could be sentenced to a year in jail. At least one of the defendants, a bouncer at Cowgirls Inc. with no criminal history, was offered a plea bargain from City Attorney Tom Carr of 20 days in jail. Why wouldn't he accept it?
"A 20-day jail recommendation is an unreasonable offer in light of the nature of the offense and his lack of criminal history," says his attorney Jessica Riley.
Indeed, a jail term is completely out of scale with the fines imposed by the Washington State Liquor Control Board. The uncompromising offers indicate Carr may be seeking to make an example of these bar employees or trying to prove the need for stricter nightlife legislation.
"Typically, the penalty for service of a minor for a first-time violation would be a $500 fine or suspension of the [liquor service] permit," explains Brian Smith, communications director of the WSLCB. The liquor board usually enforces alcohol violations, not city police.
"This was a City of Seattle investigation and we charge people with crimes," Carr justifies. Under state law, providing liquor to a minor is a gross misdemeanor, he says. "So that's the crime we have to charge."
But Carr did not have to make a minimum offer of jail time and could have scaled plea offers to reflect the liquor board's penalties, says David Gehrke, an attorney for another client who has a trial date set. "He had the discretion to say this is the first offense and we will give them a stipulated order of continuance, and if they are good for a year, we will dismiss it," says Gehrke.
Around the same time, the liquor board was also cracking down in Seattle, but issuing different penalties. Only six establishments in Seattle were cited for furnishing liquor to persons less than 21 years of age; they were each fined $350 to $500.
As for the harsh enforcement tactics by Seattle law enforcement, Smith says, "They chose to do Operation Sobering Thought their way. The mayor's office was seeking a nightclub license and this was a big issue."