Philadelphia Bar Owner Defeats Citations for Violations of PA Liquor Code Noise Limitations
On January 9, 2024, Philadelphia Bar Owner Defeats Citations for Violations of PA Liquor Code Noise Limitations at Trial Court and Again on Appeal.
The Pennsylvania State Police, and Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (BLCE) issued three citations to Woody’s, a bar in Philadelphia, for noise violations. Woody’s was cited for violations of Section 493(34) of the Liquor Code. That section provides that “[n]otwithstanding any law or regulation to the contrary, a licensee may not use or permit to be used inside or outside of the licensed premises a loudspeaker or similar device whereby the sound of music or other entertainment, or the advertisement thereof, can be heard beyond the licensee's property line[.]” 47 P.S. § 4-493(34). This is known as a strict liability offense; like a speeding ticket that a motorist receives, the motorist, or in this case, the bar owner’s intent, is not relevant. The music either can be heard beyond the licensee’s property line, or it cannot. It should be straightforward, right? Well, the BLCE thought so, but thought wrong.
The citations were consolidated for a hearing before the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). At the hearing before the ALJ, the BLCE officers testified as follows: Officer Shields testified that she walked by Woody’s and heard music emanating from within and then walked beyond the property line and could still hear music emanating from within. Officer Shields returned to the premises another night and parked a half-block away from the property. When Woody’s doors opened, the Officer heard music emanating up to 50 feet away. Further, a different officer, Officer Vail, arrived at the property on a different night and heard music emanating from the premises. The Officer walked 165 feet away, but the music from the property could still be heard. The Officer returned another night and heard music emanating from the premises 75 feet away.
Woody’s had it principal/owner testify at the ALJ hearing regarding his efforts to manage noise on the premises, including reading a decibel meter every night in an attempt to comply with local noise regulations, the lack of prior noise complaints, his belief that the noise came from neighboring licensed establishments, and decibel readings from the property and from a licensed establishment across the street, which indicated that the noise from Woody’s was lower than the noise from the bar across the street.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ ruled in favor of the BLCE and Woody’s appealed to the PLCB, which affirmed the ALJ decision. Woody’s appealed again, this time to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (the “trial court”), which reversed the Board and ruled in Woody’s favor. Before the trial court, Woody’s argued the BLCE chose to limit its evidence to testimony from two officers, whose testimony need not be taken as the “iron clad” truth and that the officers failed to support their testimony with any objective evidence, such as a decibel meter or other sound measuring device. The trial court ruled in favor of Woody’s and reversed the order from the PLCB. The BLCE appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
In its opinion, the trial court explained that it did not find the testimony of the BLCE officers credible. The trial court explained that the officers presented no data proving the decibel level at Woody’s and could have confused the music from Woody’s with other ambient music coming from the many other bars and restaurants open late those nights and also playing music inside. The trial court also found the testimony of the principal of Woody’s, concerning the efforts he makes to ensure his is not violating the noise regulation, to be highly credible. Remember, the BLCE has the burden of proof, which is the preponderance of the evidence standard; and it failed to meet this burden. This case is found here: Pa. State Police v. Wood Bros. Bar, Inc., 2024 Pa. Commw. Unpub. LEXIS 23 (January 9, 2024)
The lesson for licensees? Take precautionary measures to ensure that your establishment is not violating the noise regulations and be prepared to present and explain those measures if you are ever subject to a citation. If you have any questions about the PA Liquor Code or are the subject of an enforcement action, including but not limited to, noise violation, please do not hesitate to contact Marc A. Scaringi at Scaringi Law at 717-657-7770 or scaringilaw.com