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Summertime keeps D.C. alcoholic beverage control investigator on her toes

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010;

The two men sitting just inside the entrance to the S&M club look apprehensive as Erin Mathieson pulls out her badge and identifies herself as an investigator for the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. One of them fetches the manager, a short blonde in a hot-pink shirt and matching nail polish.

Mitzi, as the manager's nametag reads, leads Mathieson inside the warehouse-like space not far from Nationals Park. Mathieson tells Mitzi that she's gotten a complaint that the club, the Crucible, is selling alcohol without a license.

Mitzi assures the investigator that bondage and booze don't mix. "We don't want people to be drinking and hitting," she says.

In the 10 minutes Mathieson has been in the club, she has seen a woman dressed as a little girl with pigtails and a man getting a massage but not anyone drinking or serving alcohol. And according to her bible, Title 25 of the D.C. Code, she can't inspect further tonight unless she sees alcohol service. So she leaves, knowing she will probably return.

Summertime is high season for the booze police. Just as law enforcement officers field more calls when the mercury tops 80 degrees, the 40-person agency that polices the city's 1,600 establishments with liquor licenses has its hands full with noise complaints, fights and, in the case of Club 24, a go-go spot off Bladensburg Road NE, a stabbing and brawl that led to a 30-day suspension of its license.

Mathieson gets back into her white city-issued sedan for the next stop on her never-ending tour of Washington nightlife in all its drunken, staggering, fist-flying glory. She spends every other work week on the night side, visiting corner stores, strip clubs and restaurants to see whether they are abiding by Title 25, which covers matters including how many signs a liquor store can display in its windows and what constitutes nude dancing.

She's made the rounds often enough that when she goes out with friends on her own time, she'll frequently overhear bouncers mumbling into their earpieces, "ABC on the premises." She takes that as her cue to leave.

"They think you're watching them, so they're watching you," she says. "It's hard to enjoy yourself."

'This is how I dress'

In three years on the job, Mathieson, 28, has picked up skills that a master's degree in forensic psychology didn't prepare her for, such as telling how likely it is that a brawl will break out by glancing at a bar's parking lot or recognizing bad bouncers. (They get distracted by pretty girls.) She has been in a few hairy situations, learning that the only people worse than an angry drunk are an angry bouncer (one threatened her after she helped turn him in for hitting a patron) and an angry business owner (one followed her for several blocks after she caught him selling alcohol after-hours).

ABC investigators don't carry guns and are usually plainclothed, although Mathieson's attire is far from plain. She tries to blend in at the places she inspects. On a Friday night shift in early August, she wears a shiny lilac pencil skirt and a cream top cinched at the waist by a thin belt with an oversize faux flower on one side. She has long brown hair and a deep tan from a recent trip to the beach.

At one point, when she asks a police officer whether she can park behind his patrol car in Adams Morgan, he gives her a once-over.

"You on duty?" he asks, smiling. "You look like you're going out to have fun. This is how you dress when you go to work?"

She shows him her badge and rolls up the window. "What's he talkin' 'bout?" she says. "This is how I dress."

'A hot mess'

Rainy nights relegate Mathieson to routine inspections. She checks for alcohol warning signs at a Safeway, looks over import permits at a liquor store in Dupont Circle and returns a call to a guy with a noise complaint about the bar beneath his condominium.

On a balmy Friday night, by contrast, Mathieson is called to an assault outside Sabor's, a restaurant on 14th Street NW. "This looks like a hot mess," she says, pulling up across from five police squad cars and a truancy van.

Mathieson holds up her badge and one of the uniforms lets her pass. According to the rough version she gets from police, the victim was trying to get into the restaurant when some guys crossed the street and began waling on him. Behind her, the police take photos of his cuts and bruises.

At the door, she gets a different story from the restaurant's security guard, the main witness to the brawl. He says the victim initially tried to kick in the door. There are handprints on the glass just above where it is smashed. She tells the police about that version and wonders why they don't arrest the victim for going at the door.

When she heads inside to inspect the place she finds nothing amiss. Because neither victim nor perpetrator was in the restaurant, there is not much for Mathieson to do.

It would be different if either man had been served alcohol inside. If a restaurant gets written up for several violent incidents, its owner could face hefty fines. The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration generates about half a million dollars a year for the District from fines alone. The board could also close the place temporarily or revoke its liquor license, although that rarely happens, barring a fatal incident.

The board makes the decision; Mathieson's job is to get the facts. ABRA has 19 investigators, only a handful of whom are women. Salaries range from $46,031 to $73,221. Does working nights make it hard to have a boyfriend? Mathieson laughs. "Well, I don't have one," she says. "You can do the math."

'This is a problem'

It's just before 1 a.m. as Mathieson edges up Adams Morgan's main drag, 18th Street NW. She sees pulsing blue lights in the windows of a club and, through the window, a man shaking his hiney. "They're not supposed to have dancing, but I can tell you, there's dancing," she says.

To offer live entertainment or dancing, a bar or restaurant must have an "entertainment endorsement." Although the license is not expensive, businesses seeking permission to host bands or dancing can face neighborhood opposition, so some violate the rules. In this case, the club had signed an agreement with the advisory neighborhood commission that allows a DJ but bans dancing. "I don't understand the difference, why you can have a DJ but no dancing," Mathieson says. "Dancing never hurt anyone."

As 3 a.m. rolls around, Mathieson heads to 18th and Connecticut, where last call has come and gone but crowds of intoxicated partygoers still trickle onto the streets. Bars and clubs can be held responsible for incidents within 1,000 feet of their establishments. Experienced club managers put security on the sidewalk as patrons leave to discourage fighting.

Mathieson catches the remnants of a fight a few doors down from the Fly Lounge. There is no security guard outside the club. "This is a problem," Mathieson says. "I guarantee it."

Police sirens scream past. An ambulance pulls up. An emergency medical technician gets to work on a man who has clearly been in a fight and is sitting on the sidewalk. Mathieson approaches an officer. "Just a big brawl in the middle of the street," he tells her.

"They've been drinking somewhere around here," she says. But she lets it go and walks back up 18th, stopping in front of the Fly Lounge. Two men stroll by, their mood apparently soured by the fight. As they pass Mathieson, one asks the other, "What happened to the times when people could go out, have a good time and go home?"

The investigator will be back on duty in just a few hours, at 11 a.m., working overtime, doing ID checks.

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