legal 5.02

You and Me and the OLCC

You’ve read the articles in the paper: “Dance Club Owner Battles for License.” Maybe you went to an old haunt and it wasn’t there anymore: turned down for license renewal, gone with the wind. Maybe you and some friends left the bar and got seriously hassled by parking lot security, and you asked the guard what crab’s biting him, and he said, “OLCC regulations. Shut up and move it.” Did you ever wonder where the OLCC came from, and how it came to hold so much power, and why it’s breathing down your neck in the middle of the night?

The Oregon Constitution has a Bill of Rights. Parts of it are like the federal Bill of Rights: it contains protection for freedom of expression, limits police abuses, and so on. It also protects people’s freedom to entertain themselves most any way they want to: our Supreme Court has said that a dance bar, even a nude dance bar, is a private place, where you can get naked if you want to, and that’s why (once you get past those signs that say “No One Under 21 Admitted”) dancers in Oregon don’t get rousted, even though (gasp) they don’t wear pasties and g-strings.

But the longest and most complicated provision in the whole thing is Section 39, which authorizes sales of liquor by the drink. Section 39 also required the Legislature to draft and pass the Oregon Liquor Control Act, which, in turn, gave birth to the OLCC. I can’t describe all the things the OLCC does here (it issues 20 different kinds of licenses) but I can explain why it has club owners over a barrel, and why, after all, you really ought to listen to the guard in the parking lot.

The Liquor Control Act gives the OLCC power to deny a license application, or suspend or revoke an existing license, if there is a history of “serious and persistent problems." That means noise, vibrations, public drunkenness, fights, arguments, hassling passers-by, dealing dope, litter, trespassing on the neighbor’s place, and pissing in the bushes, among other things. The OLCC can jerk a license for any reason at all, as long as it finds that the “public convenience or necessity” justifies that action. The owners can be the sweetest, most cooperative folks the OLCC has ever seen, but if the OLCC thinks the customers are acting up too much, it can shut the place down.

Cities and counties have their own powers under the Act: they can regulate the “time place and manner” of a bar’s operations in order to control its “nuisance aspects." In the real world that can mean anything a city wants it to mean. Should a bar owner complain too loudly if a city imposes unreasonable restrictions? Depends on the size of his or her gonads and bank account, because the OLCC is always interested in the recommendations of cities, counties, and local police in determining whether the “public convenience and necessity” are affected by granting or renewing a license.

Some people will tell you that this is all a power game in which Puritans in black hats are frustrated because they secretly want to stamp out the Evils of Drink, and since they can’t do that they make a barkeep’s life miserable instead. That’s not really true. A bar that really features the characteristics of a “nuisance” is a place that makes life hell for the neighbors. Even if you think the OLCC is a bunch of black hats, they aren’t going away any time soon and if they decide your favorite bar is a raunchy dive, the chances are good they can close it if they want to. So the next time the security guard tells you to please be quiet leaving the premises, listen to him. You’ll be doing the bar and the neighborhood a favor.

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