Lawmakers in Baltimore City want to increase the maximum fine that bars, restaurants and other establishments can face for liquor violations from $3,000 to $20,000.
In order for the city to raise the fines, state law would need to be changed. Maryland State Sen. Antonio Hayes made the case for a bill that would do just that at a virtual hearing last Friday of Baltimore City’s Senate delegation, while Del. Stephanie Smith presented Monday to the city’s House delegation on behalf of Mayor Brandon M. Scott’s office.
Baltimore’s delegation to the General Assembly is weighing the proposal and will vote on the bill Friday.
Jurisdictions like Baltimore are looking to tighten back up after the pandemic sparked a loosening of liquor laws across Maryland. The proposal to raise the fines nearly seven times the original amount came out of meetings of the city’s social club task force, which became active under former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young during the pandemic to address compliance with social distancing restrictions.
The goal is to improve the enforcement capabilities of the liquor board, which as a state agency has somewhat limited authority in Baltimore. For example, the board lacks the power to issue civil citations — similar to a parking ticket or speeding light ticket — to alleged rule breakers. Inspectors can only issue a summons and a violation charge, which require the license holder to appear before the liquor board and explain themselves.
The new bill wouldn’t give the Board of Liquor License Commissioners new citation powers, but having a heftier fine would give them another tool to come down on repeat violators, said Nicholas Blendy, the board’s executive secretary.
Mayor Scott echoed the need to punish such offenders, who he said in an emailed statement “have received minimal consequences” for their actions in the past. The increased fine demonstrates what he called “our commitment to penalizing such behavior,” with the aim to “create a safer community and hold all parties accountable for their actions.”
The higher maximum fines would bring Baltimore’s punishments in line with those in Montgomery County, which Blendy called “the city’s closest peer” in terms of the number of liquor licenses held. Baltimore City has over 1,100 active liquor licenses while Montgomery has just under that number.
The bill is a vote of confidence for Baltimore’s liquor board and a reflection of how times have changed. “There used to be very little confidence in the Baltimore City liquor board,” Hayes said. As the group has modernized and professionalized, the legislature wants to give it greater authority, according to Hayes.
The bill would also allow licensees who are fined to forgo a full hearing for minor infractions if they can come to an agreement with the liquor board. Currently, every time a license holder has a complaint or a violation they must appear before the board for a full hearing, Hayes said, which is time-consuming.
New legislation wouldn’t change the fines for a first offense, currently set at $500 for anything besides selling to minors (which is $1,000). Establishments are now only subject to a maximum $3,000 fine for repeat violations, although a license can be revoked after particularly egregious offenses.
Baltimore County has a maximum fine of $2,000 for any liquor violation.
The city’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners, which levies fines, generally does not take positions on proposed laws, Blendy said.
The bill comes just before the start of Baltimore’s liquor license renewal season. Applications are filed in March; renewed licenses will be issued before May 1.
Residents who want to oppose the renewal of an existing license should notify the liquor board by March 31. Protests will be heard during regular board hearings in April.
Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.