ABC sweeps through clubs

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 17, 2004

A government foray into night spots around West Alabama resulted in at least 15 arrests late Friday night. For at least one club owner, the Alabama Beverage Control Board has taken things too far.

After numerous complaints to officials in Montgomery, Lt. Thomas Price of the ABC Board said his organization decided to investigate claims that minors have found a drunken haven at Hoot’s Club, located just over the river in Greene County.

In the end, Price said he found no violations inside Hoot’s.

“We went during what we thought was the most opportune time,” Price said. “When we got inside, we didn’t find anything wrong.”

J.L. Briney, who has owned Hoot’s for almost two years, said he still can’t understand why state officials have targeted his business.

“We try to do the best we can, and I don’t see any reason why it would take 28 [law enforcement officials] to look around,” Briney said.

Along with the ABC, Briney said State Troopers, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and officials from the Alabama Fire Marshal’s office barreled into the club late Friday night.

“Just like last time, they didn’t find anything wrong here, and they sure tried to find something wrong,” Briney said.

Because Hoot’s had no apparent internal problems, Price and other officials turned their attention to the parking lot and the road leading to the club’s entrance. That’s when the arrests began.

“Within about 30 minutes, we arrested four minors and two people for DUI,” Price said. “We had one guy blow a .15 and another one, who drove all the way from Meridian, blew a .17. That’s pretty bad.”

The two men arrested for DUI, whose names could not be obtained from the Greene County Sheriff’s Department on Monday, were far above legal intoxication levels. According to Alabama law, a person is legally intoxicated if his blood alcohol content is .08. Both drivers had nearly twice the legal BAC.

Along with the arrests of minors and two drunk drivers, Price also said another person was arrested for possession of marijuana, and a female was arrested for interfering with law enforcement.

“This lady kept running around screaming, trying to warn people to stay away,” Price said. “Eventually, we had to just hook her up.”

In other words, officials arrested the woman for interfering with their investigation.

For Briney, the investigations at Hoot’s continue to drive good customers away.

“It will take at least two or three more weeks before we get a good number of customers again,” he said. “I’m just trying to run a good business, and I wonder who I’m stepping on in Montgomery. We’re not hurting anybody.”

Price did say the number of complaints to Montgomery were part of the reason for the government’s stop at Hoot’s on Friday night, but Hoot’s wasn’t the only club to get an unexpected visit.

In Uniontown, officials made stops at four different locations, but only found violations at one store. In the Congo Club, the Black Belt and the Track Club, Price said no major violations were found.

“Then we went into the Barber Shop, and we found two gallons of good old southern Moonshine,” he said.

The discovery was not completely random, Price said.

“We’ve had surveillance there and knew there were jugs with clear liquid going in and out.”

Arrested were the owner of the store and another man who was found with crack cocaine.

Along with stops in Uniontown and south Greene County, Price and other law enforcement officials headed toward north Greene County where they almost got more than they bargained for.

At the Red Essence near Greenetrack, officers ran into an angry crowd.

“We found subjects who were in all sorts of violations of ABC code,” Price said. “A stand-off started, and we finally were able to communicate enough to calm everyone down.”

In the end, two people were arrested at the Red Essence, but Price admitted his safety concern before the night ended.

“I won’t lie. I was really worried about that one,” he said.

Along with the Red Essence, law enforcement officials also made a stop at the Paradise Lounge in northwest Greene County. There, Price said the owner of the lounge and a 20-year old were both arrested.

Through all of the investigations, Price said the reasons spur both from complaints and concerns.

“One of the reasons the Fire Marshal’s office went with us is because I don’t want to see another Rhode Island incident,” he said.

On Feb. 20, 2003, a night club in West Warick, R.I., erupted into flames during a band’s pyrotechnic display, killing nearly 100 patrons and injuring more than 180 others. According to Price, clubs in the rural parts of Alabama rarely get the proper fire inspections necessary to ensure the safety of customers.

“That’s what I really want to avoid, and while the Fire Marshals may know about the clubs in Tuscaloosa or Birmingham, they don’t know where these clubs are out in the counties,” he said. “And the clubs don’t always utilize the correct safety procedures.”

Price said he and other state officials are working to check all locations in the rural parts of West Alabama.

“In the Barber Shop in Uniontown, for example, there were wires all over the place. It was completely out of code,” Price said. “We’re trying to protect these people.”