Alcohol law still surprising Pa. speakeasy operators |
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Last year, some students brought about 200 cases of beer to a tailgate party at a Penn State football game, set up tables around a van and charged people to enter the perimeter and drink.

Three ladies used to rent the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill and charge friends for the cost of dispensing alcoholic beverages at after-hours parties.

In the parking lot outside Heinz Field, college students sold cases of beer out of the back of a truck at a University of Pittsburgh football game, carding customers to make sure they were old enough.

They were charged with running a speakeasy.

“A lot of times, people don’t understand the law … people think it’s OK to do that,” said state police Sgt. William D. Baker, commander of the Pittsburgh district office for Liquor Control Enforcement. “Everybody hears ‘speakeasy,’ and they think of a knock on the door, and they slide a little hole open,” he said.

In the days of Prohibition, between 1920 and 1933, Pittsburghers openly made, sold and diverted alcohol in clear violation of the prohibition laws, earning Western Pennsylvania the reputation of “wettest spot in the United States,’” said Julien Comte, a history instructor at the University of Pittsburgh who did his master’s thesis on prohibition enforcement in Pittsburgh.

The reputation occurred — despite 15,000 raids and more than 18,000 arrests between July 1926 and April 1930 — because it was hard to police home manufacturers making a steady stream of beer, wine and moonshine for personal consumption and for sale to commercial bootleggers, he said.

Comte said he was surprised to learn that enforcement against so-called speakeasies continues to this day.

In 2013, police shut down 60 illegal operations selling liquor, malt or brewed beverages without a license, Trooper Adam Reed said. That’s a 22 percent increase over 49 speakeasies the previous year. There have been 23 cases this year.

Speakeasy operations range from fraternity parties charging for beer to mobile bars that work like ice cream trucks, police said.

“Those laws are very old,” attorney Milton E. Raiford said. “The government interprets it one way, and sometimes … the meaning of those laws is not entirely clear to citizens.”

He represented the Squirrel Hill women.

Like almost all speakeasy cases, it started with a tip.

Tipsters, who can remain anonymous, use designated hotline numbers, file complaints online or stop in person at any of nine Liquor Control Enforcement offices across the state.

At the Irish Centre, officers learned about a party offering “free” libations via an anonymous tip about a month before they raided the venue Dec. 1. Officers heard organizers often rented the hall for “after-hours” parties from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Officers got a search warrant and arrived about 2:30 a.m. Dec. 1. There were about 100 people there. Officers seized 53 liters of liquor, 15 gallons of beer and $142 collected at the door, according to arrest records.

Although police contend the cover charge at the Irish Centre amounted to the illegal sale of alcohol, Raiford said his clients, who rented the hall and hired security, maintain they were not charging for alcohol, but for costs associated “with dispensing it.”

Last March, the women pleaded guilty to non-traffic citations for disorderly conduct and paid about $1,000 in fines and costs. The liquor complaints were withdrawn.

“They weren’t operating a speakeasy. It was a group of people with similar interests who gathered in a safe haven there to socialize,” Raiford said. “There was certainly no malicious intent.”

Baker, whose 30 officers cover Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, said speakeasy violations are “pretty common.”

“Western Pennsylvanians like their sports, their drinking and to have a good time,” he said.

His office shuts down about 20 to 30 speakeasies a year. Some are so short-lived, they disappear by the time officers investigate, Baker said.

James Salmon, a Liquor Control Enforcement officer in Altoona, said speakeasies tend to operate out of small hunting clubs or college parties in his mostly rural territory.

An unlicensed bar might go unnoticed in a city, but “in smaller counties, that stuff sticks out more,” Salmon said.

His office made the arrests at the Penn State tailgate event. Three students entered a diversionary program for first-time offenders and paid fines and court costs.

Cases have involved a college fraternity hosting a keg party and charging $5 a cup to pay for the beer.

“That’s technically a speakeasy. They’re college kids; they don’t know,” Baker said.

On Aug. 31, agents served a warrant at the Afrika Yetu cultural center in East Liberty, seizing 33 liters of alcohol and wine, 11 gallons of beer, plus $21, police said.

On Oct. 21, two men were charged with running a speakeasy, allegedly equipped with a bar and a disc jockey, out of the center for African immigrants, Undercover officers went in, bought some drinks and got a warrant. Operators charged a cover fee to enter. Although that is legal to pay for entertainment, they charged for drinks, Baker said.

The raid ended the way it ended for the Pitt students selling beer in the parking lot.

“We just take the beer and take their names. No one’sgoing away in handcuffs,” Baker said.

Kari Andren and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Andren can be reached at (724) 850-2856. Peirce can be reached at (724) 850-2860.

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