Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Should DC Liquor Licenses use a point system like DC Drivers Licenses?

Drivers licenses in DC work on simple point system. Anybody age sixteen or older with even a smidgen of common sense can understand it. When you first get a license, you have zero points. No violations means no points. Various driving infractions add points against your license, and they can add up quickly for bad drivers. Points last for two years, but can be canceled out by "safe driving points" (you earn one per year of driving without incident) or in some cases by taking a class. Points range from as few as two (following too closely) to three (other infractions not contributing to an accident, i.e. speeding, seat belt violations, etc) to four (speeding 16-20mph over the limit) to five (speeding more than 21mph over the limit) to six (failure to yield to an emergency vehicle) to eight (leaving the scene of an accident with no personal injury). 

Eleven different violations, including eluding an officer, DUI, reckless driving, or leaving the scene of an accident with a personal injury, result in the full 12 points for a first offense, and therefore automatic license revocation for half a year. If you get ten or eleven points against your license, it is suspended for 90 days. If you get 12 or more points, it is revoked for at least six months. Period.
The beauty of this system is that it works, very well, in fact. Even two points on a license, as anyone who's ever had a speeding ticket or who has been caught rolling through a stop sign or making an illegal u turn can attest to, can be a nightmare. Court costs, fines, spiked insurance rates - it's enough to make someone buy a bike or a Metro card after just the first violation. For most people, the problems get severe enough to stop driving altogether or to seriously clean up their act long before they even hit the halfway mark to suspension. Certainly for a novice operator, the costs alone are immense (anyone out there ever pay auto insurance for a 16 year old guy with a perfect record??).

The other beautiful thing about this system is that it's easy to see when you've hit a danger zone. If you have three pending tickets for speeding less than 15 mph over the limit, you know you're over halfway to a suspension. It's enough to make you slam the brakes if you see the light turn yellow and you're halfway through the intersection. It's also quite efficient - points are assessed if the charge is not disputed and dismissed within 60 days. The system is designed to acknowledge that everybody screws up. In fact, it gives credit for that - you get "safe driving points" that stay on your record for five years, so if you get two or three tickets a decade, you have no points on your license even with an occasional violation. Hey, everybody misjudges how long that yellow light is once in a while, right? If you're a generally good driver and you have an off day, it's forgiven. But it catches, and quickly punishes, the bad guys. If you're a speed demon racing Rock Creek Parkway every weekend, you'll lose your license, pronto. 

Even more efficient is parking enforcement. Two unpaid tickets (yes, just two - it's been dropped from three) gets your car booted and towed, with additional fines and fees, of course. You can't get it back by promising not to park illegally again and that you'll pay fines eventually. You pay up and get your car freed, or the city keeps your car and you don't get to have that car anymore. 

Liquor licenses, on the other hand, are a much more ambiguous creature. Some things result in action against your license, others don't. Some collection of violations revokes a license, but nobody really knows what that is and there don't seem to be any clear rules. In 2008, Smarta/Broadway at 1919 9th Street saw their liquor license permanently revoked after a fatal shooting of a young woman. Heritage India in Dupont saw their license restricted, but not revoked, after a triple stabbing and triple shooting (with a fatality) back in November of 2011, despite multiple public safety violations. Third Edition in Georgetown was temporarily suspended over the 2012 New Years weekend for serving alcohol to minors - Mood Lounge in Shaw lost their license that same weekend over a double stabbing out front. 

In Shaw, Mood Lounge has repeated, well documented ABRA violations. To date, this nightclub has five documented noise violations against their VA pending by neighbors, a double stabbing, alleged use of marijuana documented in the premises, allegations of hindering police investigations, and of failure to follow their own security plan all documented by ABRA. 

Let's just assign some random violations some random point values here. Let's assume that noise violations are the equivelent of minor traffic violations - two points each - ten points total for five pending violations. Let's put failure to follow a security plan at failure to yield to an emergency vehicle - six points.  Let's put hindering police investigation at the same level as avoiding police in a car - eight points. Let's put stabbing of patrons and smoking marijuana inside the club at the same level as vehicular assault and DWI, respectively - twelve points per violation. Assigning those values equals ten points for noise, six for failure to follow the security plan, eight for hindering police investigation, and stabbing and drug use at 12 points per violation, so 36 points. That's 60 points total. Enough to suspend a drivers license for 90 days  six times, or enough to revoke one for six months (minimum) five times. Since the nightclub hasn't even been open for a year, they'd all still be on the record. 

And yet, somehow, this establishment is actually still in the running to continue operating as a nightclub.  If they appeal their Notice of Summary Suspension, they can, potentially, keep their license. This is the same thing, using the numeric point system above, as allowing a 17 year old with five DUIs to keep driving as long as they do so with certain restrictions. Using those points, it's the same as allowing a 17 year old who has left the scene of an accident seven times to keep driving. I think we can all agree that people make mistakes, but five DUIs in two years or leaving the scene of an accident seven times in two years should certainly make you ineligible to continue risking the health and safety of other motorists around you. People make mistakes, but people who make repeated, unrelenting mistakes lose the privilege of driving - as they should

So why is the standard so different for nightclub operators? Most of the worst freeway pile-ups in modern history involved 20-50 cars. Even assuming four occupants per car, that's 200 people at risk from the actions of one faulty motorist who shouldn't have a drivers license. Yet, a nightclub like Mood Lounge, with an occupancy of 150% as many people, still has the potential to get their license back and continue to risk the health and safety of each and every one of these individuals... Why? 

I'd support a point system for ABRA licenses, complete with a handy chart like this one from the DC DMV about drivers licenses. It would make it easy for both operators and neighbors to know where any given establishment stood in regards to successful operation under said license. Further, I'd wholeheartedly support a 60 day adjudication window like the DMV for ABRA licensed establishments. The current year-long process it takes between violation and penalty is unacceptable. I'd also totally support "good ABRA establishment points" that give one point for every six months without a complaint. Good operators should be rewarded in such a way as to count against the occasional misstep. Lastly, I'd support clear, understandable suspension and revocation terms, like the DMV has on these issues. How has DC managed to put together something so comprehensive and clear and easy to understand for driving and failed to do so for something like ABRA licenses? 

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