Matters Column

Proposed legislation: A later last call for alcohol?

October 25, 2013
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Government shut-downs. Bipartisan bickering. Concerns over health care and the next fiscal cliff. That's a lot for your representatives to worry about.

And then there are those who say that what this state really needs is more bars that are open until 4:00 a.m. 

That'll be the state of affairs in Michigan if new legislation is approved during the coming weeks.

The proposed law, authored by Detroit State Senator Virgil Smith and known as Senate Bill 247, will allow bars in business districts in selected cities to sell or furnish alcohol or liquor between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. on any day, provided the licensee obtains an extended-hours permit.

To obtain an extended-hours permit, the licensee must submit an application and a yearly fee of $10,000 to the state. 

Smith's bill is expected to be further examined in legislative committees during the coming weeks. Should the law pass, it will likely be effective in early 2014.

In discussing his proposed legislation, Smith has indicated that a change in the law would make numerous Michigan cities more like Chicago and New York City. The senator believes allowing more hours of drinking could be good for the economy, while polishing the images of selected cities as trendy entertainment centers.

So who gets what here?

Setting aside whether Grand Rapids would be more hip if one could get a last call at 3:55 a.m., Smith has noted that allowing bars to serve until 4 in the morning would allow Michigan residents to do legally what they might otherwise do illegally at "blind pigs." 

Yes, the blind pig issue — a chance to minimize the frequency with which illegal "after-hours bars" sell alcohol while most of us sleep. Why go looking for an unlicensed seller of alcohol at 2 a.m. when your regular watering hole is open for a couple more hours? 

And then there is the money — money for the state. 

SB 247's requirement of a $10,000 annual fee could greatly enrich government bank accounts. The bill requires 85 percent of the fee to go to local police departments, with 15 percent to be divided between the Liquor Control Commission and local governmental units.

Theoretically, the money could be used to increase the presence of police officers near bars between 2 and 4 a.m. — perhaps even later for patrons who are slow to leave because they can't find their car keys.

Reaction to Senate Bill 247 has been mixed. Proponents believe keeping bars open until 4 a.m. will make Michigan cities more competitive with large urban areas. Others welcome the payment of hundreds of $10,000 annual fees. They note the $4.1 million in fees received after Michigan law changed three years ago to allow "before noon" Sunday liquor sales to those willing to pay for the right to sell on Sunday morning.

Finally, there is the simple issue of being told when you can or cannot do something by your government. 

Many supporters of SB 247 argue that people ought to be able to drink when they want to and it ought not be the government's job to tell adults that it's OK to drink between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. the next morning, but not OK to drink between 7 a.m. and 4 a.m. the next morning.

SB 247 has detractors, such as the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, who oppose it. The bill is also opposed by the Michigan Alcohol Policy Promoting Health and Safety Group, whose representatives recently stated, "This is a law that will promote heavy use of alcohol, cater to people who are already in trouble with alcohol, and endanger many innocent people."

Me? I've stayed out late from time to time. And I understand the view that legislators who often seem to have no control over other laws ought not tell me when I can or cannot be somewhere, buy something, or consume something.

At the end of the day, the question of whether bars can be open until a couple hours before breakfast will be decided according to the will of the people. Or maybe the will of elected state legislators.

Still, as SB 247 is debated, I note recent reports of a "brawl" that broke out near a downtown Grand Rapids bar a few Saturday mornings ago between 1 and 2 a.m. According to news reports, a fight broke out between people arriving at the bar and people departing the bar, some of whom may have been refused entry because they appeared to be drunk. Security personnel attempted to break up the fight without success.

One local resident, a man described as wanting no part of any scuffle, was kicked in the stomach. He died hours later of internal injuries. Grand Rapids Police indicated the deceased had done nothing to instigate the altercation. The young man's father was quoted in media reports. He said, "It was almost like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Bill Rohn is a trial lawyer and partner in the law firm of Varnum LLP.

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