Owen Courreges: Keep clothing “optional” at the Country Club – UptownMessenger.com

Owen Courreges

When it comes to Alcoholic Beverage Outlets (ABOs), the city is an irredeemable bully.  Unless Mayor Landrieu steps in, it’s likely to continue.

Case in point: The Country Club, a bar and restaurant located in the Bywater, has long been famous for amenities such as its pool and sauna.  It is also known for its freewheeling, hedonistic atmosphere particularly characterized by its “clothing optional” policy.

In spite of this, the Country Club has generally not been controversial.  New Orleans is a party town that is hardly known for prudish ways.

Alas, this changed back in August when a patron of the Country Club, Maria Treme, came forth alleging that she had been drugged and raped.

Two weeks later, the City Attorney’s Office filed a complaint with the ABO Board, charging the Country Club under Municipal Code Article 10-157(a)(5): “Permitting any disturbance of the peace or obscene, lewd, sexually indecent, immoral or improper conduct on the licensed premises.”  The only specific incident mentioned in the complaint was Treme’s rape allegation.

The city’s complaint vaguely alleged that the Country Club “has allowed activities on or about the premises that place the lives and safety of many of its patrons at risk, as well as negatively impact the quality of life of the neighbors living within the vicinity of the establishment.”

Naturally, the city has to raise specific allegations to move to revoke an ABO permit, not vague generalities.  In order to comply with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, it may not allege “conclusions and not facts[.]”  Wimberly v. White, 54 So. 2d 869, 872 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1951)

Thus, the entirety of the city’s complaint was a single incident that hadn’t even been fully investigated.  Even the most charitable reading would find it seriously wanting.

The Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal (where New Orleans is located) has made it clear that simply because crimes occur at an ABO does not justify revoking their permit.

In Bibbins v. City of New Orleans, 2002 CA 1510 (La.App. 4 Cir. 05/30/03); 848 So. 2d 686, 700, the city sought to revoke the ABO permit of the moronically-named “Club Xscape,” citing a fight that occurred in the club and numerous arrests in the vicinity.  The Fourth Circuit rejected those grounds, holding that “the fact that an argument may have occurred in the Club Xscape which became physical outside does not constitute adequate competent evidence that the club or its owner committed or permitted a disturbance of the peace and/or public nuisance.”

The Court further reasoned that “[t]he club cannot be held accountable for the acts of third persons because the club is in the vicinity of criminal activity in a high crime area.”

Although it has been alleged that the Country Club needed better security, the idea that they “permitted” a rape to occur was comical.  The city’s complaint only pled a single, isolated occurrence together with conclusory statements.

So why did the city bother to go after the Country Club at all?  The answer may lie with the settlement the Country Club recently reached with the city.

“Today, the Country Club settled the pending action with the ABO, the City of New Orleans liquor licensing agency,” the Country Club said in an October 21st Facebook posting. “We will post more details about the policy changes, but at this point we want to inform our guests as soon as possible that, effective immediately, the Club has discontinued its clothing optional policy.”

The settlement was very curious insofar as the clothing-optional policy had absolutely nothing to do with the city’s complaint.  Nudity is no more a cause of rape than is the wearing of a short skirt.  We’re supposed to be past hackneyed notions to the contrary, the absurd depictions of all men as beasts for whom women need to cover-up lest they inflame men’s base urges.  That tired thinking is one step away from the burqa.

Thus, it appears that the city wanted to act as morality police and used an alleged sexual assault as a pretense for strong-arming the Country Club into agreeing to shed its policy of “no clothes, no problem.”

If that’s the case, it’s difficult to see exactly where this Puritanical sentiment is coming from.  It doesn’t appear to come from the neighborhood.   John Guarnieri, chairman of the Bywater Neighborhood Association, has expressed strong support of both the Country Club and the clothing-optional policy.

“They were one of the first establishments open in the neighborhood and have always been very cooperative,” Guarnieri recently told WWLTV. “We hold a lot of neighborhood events at the Country Club and we’ve never heard any complaints.”

Likewise, the sentiment doesn’t come from the victim of the crime upon which the complaint was based.  Ms. Treme has been highly critical of the city’s response.

“I had no problem with the nudity; I was naked, I wanted to be naked, and a sicko took that away from me,” Treme said in response to the settlement.  “My issue was with the security doing their jobs and watching out for the patrons, which was not happening obviously. Making it about the nudity is kind of like blaming the victim for how she dresses; it feeds into this victim-blaming mentality that has to stop.”

It really seems like nobody supports this, and it isn’t legally required either.  Indeed, the entire action by the city was virtually baseless.  The only explanation I can come up with is that ABO enforcement has become hopelessly irrational and overzealous to the point where the City Attorney’s office simply lashes out randomly.  We’ve definitely been seeing more onerous prosecutions than we’ve been accustomed to over the past few years.

It’s a relatively simple matter to extract a settlement from an ABO.  The fear of losing their liquor license, even temporarily, is enough to cow many ABOs to the city’s demands, however unreasonable.  Accordingly, an ABO complaint is a dangerous power that ought not be used arbitrarily.  Alas, that power is not being used properly.

The real question, then, is how far it has to go before Mayor Landrieu steps in and puts a stop to it.  Other scandals, such as the abuses at the Taxi Bureau, have shown us that Landrieu is slow to take action when his people begin to step out of line.

The debacle that was the Country Club prosecution is a very glaring example of overreach.  But is it enough to awake the sleeping giant?

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

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