The Huka Bar in Murray is one of Utah’s cleaner bars, at least if judged by the few liquor violations it’s racked up since opening four years ago. The club’s namesake hookah pipes never even caused trouble. That is, until April when Murray Police narced to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, complaining Huka was violating the new ban on smoking in bars.
Nate Porter, owner of Huka Bar, says the complaint was just the latest example of a pattern of harassment from the Murray Police Department, which rang the bar up for minor liquor-law violations in spring of 2008 following extensive undercover operations at the club. After being slapped with fines, Porter did the unthinkable for a Utah bar owner: He’s fighting back in court.
For years, Utah club owners who think they are being treated unfairly by the state liquor commission have complained of having nowhere to turn. Few bothered appealing liquor fines to state court because of Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control rules that limit appeals, effectively making the liquor authority jury and judge. But Porter and his attorney believe the DABC’s system of in-house justice is cracking.
His bar was cited in March 2008 for allowing a patron to leave with a halffinished bottle of Corona and for allowing a customer in without checking his membership. Those were the only charges to emerge from a series of undercover operations in which plain-clothed Murray Police officers camped out at the bar on several occasions between January and March 2008, sometimes for five hours at a time.
“I don’t know what I was thinking opening a bar in this conservative city,” Porter now says. “That may have been a mistake.”
Murray Police were at Huka Bar so often that employees soon came to know the undercover officers. On March 6, 2008, the day of the alleged Corona bottle violation, Porter says he waited on the officers’ table himself and assigned other employees to follow the remainder of the five-man undercover team. When the officers left five hours later at 1 a.m., Porter and other employees followed them out to their Dodge Charger and thought everything had gone well. A few days later, he learned that it was during the exit that the officers allegedly spotted a man leaving with a half-drunk bottle of Corona. At the Huka Bar’s hearing before a DABC hearing officer, the testimony of four Huka employees—none of whom had seen a Corona—didn’t seemed to matter.
The Huka’s new court complaint alleges Murray Police officers invented the guy with the Corona bottle and falsified paperwork. The bar argues allowing in an undercover officer without checking his membership wasn’t a violation, since Utah law only requires one patron in a group be a club member, and the officer immediately went to sit with two other officers who were members. Murray Police Chief Peter Fondaco, through a secretary, declined to answer questions about his office’s probes of the Huka Bar.
In a January 2008 decision, the DABC hearing officer said there were “significant mitigating circumstances” but nonetheless ordered Huka to pay $1,500 for the Corona incident, $500 for the membership violation and $1,500 for the hearing officer’s time.
“The problem with the [Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission] is you don’t have to have evidence,” Porter says. He hopes his new 3rd District Court case will change that by allowing bars to have their liquor commission cases tried in “a real court where rules of law apply and evidence is crucial.”
Lisa Marcy, the Huka Bar’s attorney, thinks the Utah Supreme Court opened that possibility in October 2008 in its ruling on a case brought by the Southern Exposure club. In that case, lawyers for the DABC argued that state courts didn’t have authority to judge the quality of evidence gathered against bars, only how liquor commissioners interpreted the law.
But the Supreme Court didn’t buy the argument, writing that Southern Exposure had the right to have the evidence against it re-examined by a judge. “I really think there was just so much pressure [to find problems at Huka Bar] that they just made something up,” says Porter.
“Before, the DABC was judge, jury and executioner. We’re taking it out of the hands of the DABC and taking it to a real court.”