Trump National Golf Club in Colts Neck, New Jersey (“Trump National”), has been charged with violations stemming from the alleged over-service of a club member that led to a serious car accident and the death of the car’s passenger.
As a result, the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (“ABC”), through the Attorney General’s Office, is seeking revocation of Trump National’s liquor license.
Trump National was charged with serving alcohol in an area not permitted under its license (for which a first penalty carries a 10-day suspension), and serving an intoxicated person (for which a first penalty carries a 15-day suspension). Due to unspecified “aggravating factors,” the ABC seeks revocation rather than a 25-day suspension.
Licensees operating in New Jersey should be aware that under the applicable Penalty Schedule, the punishment does not necessarily fit the crime. Here, in a case resulting in an unsafe situation and, sadly, a death, the presumed penalty is a mere 25-day suspension. Meanwhile, if a licensee did not have its books in order (let’s say they could not produce all of their invoices in a timely fashion), the presumed penalty is a 30-day suspension. Similarly, if a wholesaler offered an incentive that did not appear on a price list, that too would carry a presumptive 30-day penalty. These penalties hardly seem equitable.
Although the Notice of Charges in the Trump National matter is dated October 21, 2019, the events giving rise to the charges occurred back in August 2015. Unlike many other states, New Jersey does not require that the Attorney General issue charges within a certain period of time from the date of the incident or investigation. Thus, licensees can live on edge for months (or even years) waiting to learn of the charges stemming from an investigation. Or they may mistakenly believe that the passage of time means the ABC has forgotten about, or dismissed, the matter, only to receive an unpleasant surprise down the road.
The ABC’s investigation is just one piece of the puzzle. Certain ABC violations may also constitute criminal offenses. And you can certainly count on a civil suit if there is an injury or death – New Jersey’s dram shop act holds the licensee responsible for injury or damage if the server serves a visibly intoxicated person or a minor.
First, your staff members must be trained to know when to stop serving patrons and not to serve minors. All servers must be trained by a nationally-recognized server training program. Also, consider hiring a company to perform “stings” to see that servers are checking for identification and accepting only valid IDs. Demonstrating to the authorities that you are trying to maintain a safe environment can be a mitigating factor when negotiating a settlement.
Additionally, cooperation is important. So is showing the ABC that you want to correct the situation and comply going forward. Not only does the ABC have the right to conduct warrantless searches (and the failure to cooperate can in and of itself, lead to further charges and suspension), but a cooperative attitude can help the process. That does not mean a licensee should allow themselves to be bullied by an overzealous agent, but responding to inquiries truthfully and in a timely manner is key. We recommend that clients contact us as soon as an agent arrives at their site (and preferably before, if they think an event has occurred that could lead to an investigation or charges) so the attorney can be involved from the start.
Having an otherwise “clean” operation will help too. Any investigation will almost certainly include an examination of your books and records. This is another area where managers, buyers, and administrators must be trained. It is imperative that they understand their recordkeeping obligations, as well as permissible trade practices, as the company’s records will let the authorities know whether or not trade practice violations have occurred. Ensuring that your books and records comply with the regulations will help avoid further charges. And maintaining order in everything else may suggest that you are otherwise a good citizen and that the event leading to the investigation was an unfortunate “one off” that is unlikely to happen again. This can all help in settlement negotiations or even in a finding of guilty.
And it should go without saying – don’t be a repeat offender. If you have been cited, make sure whatever practice was deemed unacceptable is corrected.
For information regarding national and state liquor law matters or general manufacturing and distribution advice, please contact our Liquor Law, Licensing, Manufacturing, and Distribution Practice Group: Liquor Law Department Chair Theodore J. Zeller III, Esquire (firstname.lastname@example.org); David C. Berger, Esquire (email@example.com) for Pennsylvania and New Jersey retail and manufacturing licensing; or contact our offices at 610-391-1800.