Police: Stop snitching on bar sting
Pub owner threatened over allegation she squealed
By Chris Busby
Two months ago, Portland police started a sting operation aimed at bars, corner stores, supermarkets, and restaurants that sell alcohol. Undercover agents, some just months under 21, entered dozens of establishments and attempted to buy booze without showing identification. Scores of businesses have been cited as the investigation has continued.
The Snug, a neighborhood pub on Congress Street, was among the businesses nabbed in the first round of the operation. Proprietor Margaret Lyons and her staff said undercover cops have shown up at least twice since then, but her staff – some of whom also tend bar at other Portland watering holes – recognized the agents and carded them.
Following one such a visit over two weeks ago, a uniformed officer showed up at the pub the next day. Lyons said the cop told her he had heard that she had alerted other bar owners by phone that the sting was taking place the night before. When Lyons denied this, she said the officer pointed out that police can get access to her phone records to verify what calls were made to whom that night.
Though the officer’s tone was friendly, his words were threatening. Lyons said she was made to understand that police can “shut down” her bar if she or her employees spread word of the undercover sting operation while it is taking place.
Lyons said she had sent a text message to an employee that evening expressing her relief that the bar had not been cited again. Beyond that, she said she made no effort that evening to warn others about the sting.
Portland Police Chief Tim Burton directed Capt. Vern Malloch, head of the department’s patrol services, to respond to The Bollard‘s inquiries about this matter.
In a phone interview, Malloch confirmed that police believe alerting bar and other business owners or their employees that the sting operation is in progress is a crime. In an e-mail from police attorney Beth Ann Poliquin, Poliquin clarified the department’s legal position, stating, “It is a violation of the Criminal Code to hinder the apprehension or prosecution of someone for the commission of a crime. One of the ways the statute can be violated is by warning another person of impending discovery or apprehension.”
Hindering apprehension or prosecution is a Class E crime, punishable by up to six months in jail and fines of $1,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations or businesses, according to Maine’s sentencing guidelines. In addition to owners and employees, a customer or citizen who spreads word of the sting while it’s in progress could also face this charge, though “it would depend on the circumstances involved,” Malloch said.
Although Lyons distinctly recalls the officer saying the department can close her business for this type of violation, Malloch said, “I don’t think it’s accurate to say we would shut down a bar or could shut down a bar for passing word to other bars that enforcement action is in progress.”
In a subsequent e-mail, Malloch confirmed that an officer spoke with Lyons the day after the sting attempt. He said officers assigned to the operation “were told by another bar that someone from the Snug had said there was a detail underway.
“After speaking with Ms. Lyons,” Malloch continued, “the officers believe she sent a text message to one person and others began speaking informally rather than engaging in an organized effort to issue a warning about the enforcement effort.” As a result, Malloch wrote that police do not believe Lyons’ text message constitutes a criminal violation.
That’s small relief to Lyons, who is still both concerned and confused about the matter. She said she assumes police would consider it a laudable practice for a bar owner to alert others that an underage person is going from bar to bar attempting to purchase alcohol.
Malloch agrees. “I think that does make sense,” he said. “That’s something we’ve encouraged bars to do in the past, especially for customers who become problematic.”
However, if the underage patron is a law enforcement agent, that’s a different story, said Malloch. He added that bar or store staff are told by officers accompanying the undercover agents that the investigation has taken place shortly after the employee cards the plant. (If the employee fails to card the agent, it’s obvious the sting is on once the citation is issued.)
Lyons disputes that this was done the last two times her employees carded an agent. Other than the incident her bar was cited for two months ago, police did not indicate at the time that agents had visited, she and her staff said.
A customer who recently witnessed an undercover agent attempt to buy a drink at Sangillo’s, a tavern on the East End, said that bar was not notified of the sting, either. The Bollard is continuing to investigate similar incidents.
Malloch said officers do not specifically warn employees targeted during the sting not to spread word of it when they visit the premises.
City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, a member of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, is struggling to understand why the police department is undertaking this sting operation in the first place. “I have gotten absolutely no information from the police department as to why we’re doing this,” she said. “Is [the sale of alcohol to minors in Portland] a problem? I’m not aware of one.
“We don’t want bars out there servicing underage kids, but this may be taking it a step too far,” Leeman continued. “We’re setting up folks. It’s pretty close to entrapment, from my perspective.”
Portland attorney Dan Skolnik has represented Portland bars in legal matters, and sits on the citizen review board charged with overseeing police practices. He said the incident involving Lyons and the officer who warned her not to squeal on the sting “sounds like bullshit to me…. I think it certainly comes right up to the line of what’s appropriate and what isn’t” as far as police practices are concerned.
Portland attorney Gary Prolman has represented several bars that have come under scrutiny by police and city officials, and has previously served on the citizen review board. “I think it’s outrageous behavior,” he said of the cops’ interactions with Lyons in this matter.
“Because we don’t have a liquor tactical enforcement team run by the state, [Portland] police have made it their business to try to entrap businesses,” Prolman said. “When [business owners] don’t cooperate, they get hounded…. People are really fearful of this police department right now.”
Lyons was initially uncomfortable discussing this matter with The Bollard, saying she feared that if she voiced her concerns it would prompt police to apply even greater scrutiny to her business. Discussions with other bar owners indicate this fear is widespread.
Told of this concern, Malloch said, “it’s certainly not the policy of the police department to provide increased scrutiny [after bar owners voice concerns in public]. We would frown upon that if we saw officers doing that.”
Malloch acknowledged that the fear of stepped-up enforcement as payback for criticism exists. “We are sensitive to that in many instances and go out of our way to avoid that perception,” he said. For example, he pointed out that with the ongoing underage-alcohol-sales investigation, the department has “made a conscious effort not to target any one geographic area or type of [seller].”
Leeman is also aware of this fear. “It’s kind of human nature that one would be nervous about Big Brother – in this case, the police department – constantly looking over their shoulder,” she said. “I would certainly hope against all hope that that fear is unwarranted, that the men and women in our police department are professional enough that that wouldn’t happen. It better not.”
City Councilor and Public Safety Committee chairman Dave Marshall said he plans to ask Chief Burton to brief the committee on the sting operation next month.