A Delicate Dance

Eve Cousin, left, and Xzavian Johnson get their IDs checked at Platinum, where underage patrons are marked with  X's to show they can't drink.
Eve Cousin, left, and Xzavian Johnson get their IDs checked at Platinum, where underage patrons are marked with X's to show they can't drink. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Keith L. Alexander and Robert Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 2, 2007

D.C. Council member Jim Graham cringes each time he talks about teens in nightclubs, partying until the wee hours alongside 30- and 40-ye ar-olds guzzling beer or sipping trendy cocktails.

Mixing teens with adults and booze , Graham believes, is a recipe for serious trouble.

"What are these kids doing in these places?" he says. "It's just dangerous. Pedophiles, violence, anything could happen to them in there."

To lessen that danger, Graham (D-Ward 1) authored the Youth Protection Bill, which would place greater restrictions on nightclubs that serve alcohol and allow patrons under 18. Those clubs would have to ensure that youths are accompanied by a parent or guardian after 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends, or have a $300 annual license that would require an approved security plan. At present, clubs that sell liquor may admit all ages, but only those 21 and older may drink.

Under the bill, if a nightclub owner rented space to an outside promoter, the owner would remain responsible for security. A nightclub could lose its underage privileges if it has two violations, such as selling drinks to minors or selling alcohol after hours, within a two-year period or a pattern of violent incidents.

Concern about violence and nightclubs is a suburban issue, too. On Thursday, Prince George's County officials ordered nine nightclubs shut down, saying they were magnets for violent crime. After a judge allowed five to reopen, at least temporarily, officials said last night that they were planning to cease their efforts to close those clubs as part of an agreement that would include increased security. Three of the remaining four clubs remain closed, and the fourth remains open under a previous court order. Graham worries that troublemakers who frequented the closed clubs might move to D.C. spots.

"If Prince George's County is removing a problem," he said, "the problem isn't going to just vanish. These people will head to the District of Columbia."

Under his legislation, D.C. nightclubs could hire off-duty police officers for inside security. That practice was discontinued in 1999 when some officers were accused of lascivious behavior with customers. The bill also would allow police to charge underage patrons with a misdemeanor if found drinking in a nightclub.

Graham plans to begin distributing the bill to council members and others Wednesday and has scheduled a hearing on it April 18. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said District laws regarding teens in nightclubs "are much more lenient" than laws in many other cities, and he promised to work with Graham as the legislation moves through the council. The proposal is a result of weeks of negotiations with owners and managers of the District's nightclubs, restaurants and taverns who opposed Graham's original plan to prohibit anyone under 21 from patronizing a club that serves alcohol.

"The music scene of D.C. was built around teens being able to go to clubs and listen to music. If that changed, I'd have to change my entire business plan, and I'm not willing to do that. I'd just shut it down," said Dante Ferrando, owner of the Black Cat, a popular live music club in the District that allows people of any age.

To fight Graham's initial proposal, Ferrando teamed with several other nightclub owners and managers, including Marc Barnes of Love, Jean Homza of the 9:30 Club and Daryle M. Vaughn of the Market Lounge. They, Graham and Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration officials gathered for five two-hour meetings around a conference table in an office two doors from Graham's in the John A. Wilson Building.

By the time the meetings concluded last week, both Graham and the club owners got most of what they wanted.

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