Community prosecutors in Denver have developed an expertise in the area of dealing with alcohol-related violations. That expertise was developed through their work in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where crimes connected to alcohol are a top priority for stakeholders. Here’s how prosecutors addressed the problem:
This first step was to ascertain priorities regarding crime and safety in the neighborhood. Community prosecutors did this by administering a survey, obtaining 247 completed forms from residents and other stakeholders in Capitol Hill.
Based on the results of their survey and discussions with the Capitol Hill Community Justice Council, prosecutors and the council members decided to focus on three issues for the coming year: family violence, drug sales, and crimes connected to alcohol.
When it comes to alcohol, “Denver has an incredible saloon mentality, there are no checks and balances,” said Susan Motika, former Director of the Community Prosecution Division. In Capitol Hill, “We have scores and scores of bars and nightclubs, people vomiting on the street, cursing and swearing, and a city municipal code that’s doesn’t adequately address these problems.”
Community prosecutors researched the problem, finding that the number of liquor licenses in Denver had exploded in recent years. In 1996, for example, there were 804 licensed liquor establishments in Denver, but by the spring of 2002, there were 1,304 such businesses.
The residents of Capitol Hill acknowledged that most businesses were law abiding. But a few were linked to numerous problems, such as disruptive and unruly patrons staggering out onto residential streets, urinating and vomiting in alleys and breaking beer bottles. Residents also said that some stores were selling liquor to minors and visibly intoxicated people.
These problems were compounded by procedural obstacles, so that even if residents wanted to raise objections before city regulators, it was difficult for them to do so. Residents were given little or no advance notice of liquor licensing hearings; they also were ill equipped on their own to meet the exacting standards for denying, revoking or imposing conditions on existing licenses. (One problem, prosecutors discovered, was that legal notices about liquor licensing are printed in a New Jersey-based publication that is available only by subscription in Denver.)
Prosecutors decided to focus on a particular trouble spot—a liquor store that neighborhood stakeholders blamed for many community problems. The store was in an area saturated with businesses that sold liquor: in the 10-block radius surrounding the store, there were at least 113 liquor licenses. In addition, the liquor store had previously received three citations for violating the liquor code, and a hearing was scheduled to discuss the most recent violation (involving the sale of alcohol to a minor).
Ultimately, Susan Motika, in collaboration with community members, the city attorney’s office and other city agencies, developed a multi-pronged response to the problem consisting of the following components:
- The Capitol Hill Community Justice Council came up with the idea of circulating a petition calling for the revocation of the store’s liquor license. When an applicant requests a liquor license, the Department of Excise and License requests signatures in support of the application. There is no provision in the regulations, however, for collecting signatures to make the opposite point. Nonetheless, the Justice Council thought signatures showing that the community wanted the store’s liquor license revoked might be persuasive to the hearing officer. Seventy-five signatures were collected.
- The prosecutors from the District Attorney’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office encouraged community members to attend the hearing on the violation. (Fifteen attended and three testified.)
- Prosecutors did legal research to support their arguments in favor of revocation at the hearing. (For instance, a fourth violation against the store had been issued in the interim, and prosecutors found a regulation allowing them to submit evidence about the fourth violation at the hearing at which, technically, only the third violation was supposed to be discussed.)
- The Denver D.A.’s Community Justice Unit wrote two legal education handbooks on the liquor code for community members. One handbook explains how businesses obtain a new liquor license; the other addresses the process of sanctioning licensees for liquor code violations.
- The community prosecution team, in collaboration with the Denver City Attorney and community groups, sponsored a community forum on new liquor licenses.
An important part of any problem-solving initiative, of course, is the ultimate result. In this instance, community prosecutors logged a number of important outcomes. The most immediate and tangible result occurred shortly before the commencement of the hearing on the third violation when an employee of the store relinquished the liquor license at the Department of Excise and License. In other words, faced with a well-organized opposition, the storeowner called it quits.
In a further effort to measure outcomes, the community prosecution team handed out a survey to community residents who attended the forum on new liquor licenses. Question 1 asked people to rate whether the provision of new liquor licenses was an important topic for education in the Capitol Hill neighborhood; 83 percent of the participants responded that this topic is very important. Another question asked if the handbook, “A Community Guide to New Liquor Licenses,” provided useful information; 88 percent of participants agreed that it did.
The success of the initiative has led to additional long-term planning in this area. The office is currently co-writing a guide with a national perspective (tentatively titled “Tactical Guide to Problem Bars and Liquor Stores”) with the Travis County (Austin, Texas) and Richmond County (Staten Island, N.Y.) district attorney’s offices, and also participating in the creation of a citywide task force on liquor licensing procedures.
In addition, successful closing of a problem liquor store has spurred other neighborhood organizations from other parts of Denver to advocate for new rules to expand resident participation in the liquor licensing process and to enhance penalties for liquor code violations. Thus an issue that began with a neighborhood liquor store is evolving into a citywide grass-roots effort.