Court is in session: Select Board, Temporary Town Manger, Town attorney
Acting as Liquor Commissioners the Amherst Select Board last night had to balance two sometimes competing interests: the ability of a small business to survive in an ever increasing competitive market and the protection of public safety i.e. keeping underage patrons from procuring alcohol.
Obviously the latter takes precedence.
After an hour of testimony, including that of Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Detective Brian Daley, and then another painstaking hour of discussion, they unanimously voted to suspend the liquor license of Panda East for a total of 55 days, May 4th through June 27.
Fifty days for the two new incidents and 5 days that were given in "abeyance" for the original incident in January.
Detective Brian Daley and Chief Livingstone give sworn testimony to Select Board
Thus the Select Board softened the blow somewhat by allowing the suspension to run out during the late spring into summer, a slower time of year in our little college town. Although they will be dry during busy commencement weekend.
At one point the specter of outright revocation was raised, and then another suggestion by Doug Slaughter of seven full months (June 1st to the end of the year) was briefly discussed.
Even after the number of days under discussion for suspension came down to a month or two, Mr. Slaughter suggested the start of the penalty be September 1st rather than the slow summer months.
Attorney Kristi Bodin attacked the most egregious incident where a 17-year-old female was allegedly served two Scorpion Bowls and required hospitalization for alcohol OD by stating all the evidence was hearsay and they were being denied the basic right to cross examine witnesses.
Ms. Bodin also pointed out after the January incident where Panda East was sanctioned for serving 17 underage patrons the recipe for Scorpion Bowls was reduced to one shot of alcohol. And it's hard to imagine two shots could put someone into a stupor requiring hospitalization.
Attorney Kristi Bodin, Amy Wu manager Panda East
The young women did tell investigators she went to a UMass dorm room after being at Panda East so it's quite possible -- in fact likely -- more alcohol was then consumed, pushing her over the edge.
But the second incident where a 20-year-old used a fake Rhode Island license to successfully acquire alcohol was pretty much beyond reproach and even acknowledged by Attorney Bodin that her client "dropped the ball."
Although interestingly the night of the second incident APD was doing a sting operation using four 20-year-old UMPD cadets and all four were denied service after being carded.
In her closing argument, like any good defense attorney who is cornered, Attorney Bodin threw herself on the mercy of the "court" saying her client desperately wants to stay in business.
After the last incident in January she has been trying to change the image of the business back to a restaurant rather than a drinking establishment.
And after these most recent incidents Ms. Wu purchased a $5,000 electronic scanning machine to detect fake I.D.s Although Temporary Town Manger Peter Hechenbleikner pointed out you still need to use commons sense since a real license can be used by the wrong party.
In addition to pulling their liquor license for 55 days the Select Board also gave Ms. Wu until that June 27 end date to have the liquor license transferred over to her name from that of current absentee owner Isaac Chow.
The Select Board also told the Town Manager to come up with a 11" by 17" sign to be prominently posted in the front entry of the eatery displaying the dates their liquor license is suspended.
So does the punishment fit the crime? Well, yes and no.
Since the Select Board let them off easy for the first incident back in January by only immediately pulling the license for two days -- a Monday and Tuesday no less -- this 55 day sanction seems rather stern.
But I have to wonder if one of the downtown bars involved with the infamous Blarney Blowout were involved rather than an iconic restaurant would the punishment have been a tad more severe?
Either way, it's getting harder and harder for small businesses to survive in the downtown.
And after the slew of publicity this incident has now generated combined with the real threat of revocation for another incident -- with APD on the watch -- I think Panda East has, finally, learned a hard lesson.
"The quality of mercy is not strain'd ..."