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Lowell Bars Punished for Serving Minors

March 29, 2019

LOWELL -- The License Commission on Thursday handed down unanimous suspensions to two downtown bars for underage drinking and other infractions.

The Smokehouse Tavern, on Middle Street, received a one-day suspension for providing alcohol to a minor, to be served on Friday, April 19.

The Last Safe & Deposit, on Merrimack Street, received a total of four days’ suspension, held in abeyance for one year. Two days were for overcrowding and an impassable stairway, and two were for a minor in possession of alcohol.

The violations came from alcohol compliance checks police made at both establishments on Feb. 26.

Several violations for underage drinking at both bars did not hold up to punishment due to a combination of impeccable fake IDs and police not having observed the minors with alcoholic beverages.

At the Last Safe & Deposit, Capt. James Hodgdon said police found the entrance and stairway were crowded and blocked, posing a safety hazard. Inside, Lt. Steven Coyle said the place was “packed shoulder-to-shoulder” and he estimated there were between 120 and 150 patrons inside the bar -- well over its capacity of 99.

Detectives found eight people inside that were under 21, six who did not have proper identification and two who had fake IDs, Hodgdon said. He said four underage patrons attempted to flee the bar when police arrived. Detectives were able to collect their IDs, of which three were out-of-state driver’s licenses, considered to be unacceptable forms of identification at an alcohol-serving establishment in Massachusetts, Hodgdon said.

Bar co-owner Tim Kelleher said when people present out-of-state IDs, they are asked to provide other forms of identification that show they are actually from that state. He said Lowell is a college town, and “you just can’t say ‘no’ to everyone.”

“We would be telling three-quarters of the Division 1 athletes at UMass Lowell that are over 21 they can’t come into the bar,” Kelleher said.

He said two of the underage girls that were found in the bar, 20-year-old twin sisters, are known to management and are allowed in because one of them dates a bartender. Kelleher insisted they do not drink in the bar and staff know not to serve them.

“Boy, you’re playing with fire,” Chairman John Descoteaux said. “That to me that is just insane.”

Attorney Jay Hartigan, representing the bar, said that only one of the eight underage people in the bar was found with a drink, and no state or local law prohibits minors from simply being in establishments where alcohol is served. Hartigan said the bar used to have a wand to scan verify IDs, but found it “completely ineffective” because the scanning technology can’t keep up with better and better fakes.

Upon examining the confiscated fakes, Descoteaux said he could see the situation from a bar manager’s perspective.

“I have a real problem suspending somebody’s license when an ID like that comes across,” Descoteaux said. “I don’t want to take money out of their pockets.

“I think it’s a very precarious position the board is being put in to make a judgment like that,” he added.

Descoteaux said the board will ask the Law Department to contact the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission for guidance on the fake ID issue.

At the Smokehouse Tavern, Hodgdon said police had found four underage drinking violations, but only one led to the suspension -- a 19-year-old boy who had a fake Maine license and was found with an open beer inside.

Another, an intoxicated 19-year-old girl who attempted to hide in the bathroom, was arrested for being a minor in possession of alcohol, resisting arrest and hindering an investigation, Hodgdon said. She had a fake Massachusetts driver’s license that appeared to be real.

Police found a third underage person inside, an 18-year-old girl who only had her UMass Lowell ID, Hodgdon said. She was not observed with an alcoholic beverage.

The commission also felt they couldn’t prove an intoxicated underage boy with an open container outside had come from the bar. Hodgdon said the 19-year-old was arrested for being a minor in possession of alcohol and public drinking.

The hearing on another violation by the Last Safe & Deposit, dated Feb. 20, was postponed until the commission’s next meeting due to additional evidence being brought forward. The details of that violation were not immediately available.

The meeting ended with an executive session to discuss litigation brought against the commission by LD Holdings, doing business as Bar 74 Lounge & Grill. Bar 74 faced numerous violations and suspensions, largely for serving minors and managerial issues, before the License Commission ultimately revoked its license in October, forcing the bar to close.

Descoteaux declined to comment on the details of the lawsuit and his recusal from the executive session, deferring to the city’s Law Department on the matter.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.