Bouncers at Tailgates Sports Cafe in Charles County used to check only the birth date on patrons' driver's licenses to make sure they were old enough to go inside the bar. Now they're checking addresses, too.
The owners of the Southern Maryland bar have decided to charge anyone who lives in the District and Prince George's County $20 to get in the door.
"We're not saying that we don't want people from any other areas here," said Jessie Haiden, who co-owns the bar on Route 301 in White Plains, "but we found that that's where the majority of our problems were coming from."
Haiden said the policy was adopted several weeks ago to keep out those she said are unruly customers as part of the management's effort to reduce the number of times police have to be summoned to the establishment.
Haiden said that after noticing a high number of police calls for parking-lot brawls, managers at Tailgates started checking the vehicle tags of the offenders and found they were young people from Prince George's County and the District, who mainly show up on Friday nights.
"Just by watching the parking lot, we saw those tags," Haiden said, referring to patrons from the District. "We don't want to imply that people from D.C. are bad elements, but that's just what we're seeing."
The move has been slow to generate any controversy at the popular bar, where up to 150 people have been known to turn out on Friday nights, but officials with the D.C. chapter of the NAACP say the policy in a county that is mostly white could have the unintended effect of excluding blacks from Prince George's County and the District.
"Certainly there seems to be on the face of it a racial discrimination component there," said E. Ned Sloan, vice president and attorney for the D.C. chapter of the NAACP.
At the very least, Sloan said, the bar has a policy of "geographic discrimination."
"I don't think they can do that based on where you're from," Sloan said. "They have a county-issued liquor license. It's a public bar. They have to treat everybody equally unless a person is unruly. Then they can eject them from the bar; but you can't do it preemptively. That's like profiling."
Haiden said trying to preserve the fun atmosphere at the bar is the only intention of the screening.
"We're the ones who originally went to the police to tell them about the problem we were having," Haiden said. "We said: 'We have a problem. What can we do?' "
William Braxton, president of the Charles County chapter of the NAACP, said no one has called to complain about the bar's policy.
Meanwhile, business revenue has dropped off about 60 percent, especially on the weekend, Haiden said. "But it's worth it to avoid all the trouble."
Haiden said she thinks she knows how District and Prince George's County customers started coming to Tailgates. She said two bars in Waldorf, Mixers and Club V, used to target people from those jurisdictions to come to their bars, but when they closed last year, their customers wanted to keep coming to Southern Maryland.
Haiden said her father, Michael Haiden, got the cover charge idea from a Charles County sheriff's deputy assigned to the alcohol enforcement unit.
Taking the officer's advice, they tried a $10 cover. "But $10 wasn't working," Haiden said. Then they switched to $20 and found the troublemakers weren't willing to pay that. Haiden said the bar charges a discretionary cover charge for everyone else.
Lemon H. Moses Jr., chairman of the Charles County Board of License Commissioners, said that when he called a meeting recently to discuss the problem of frequent police calls at the bar -- there have been 71 since January -- he was surprised to hear of the policy.
"If I was to come in behind someone who wasn't charged anything and then you charge me $20 -- how do you get away with that?" Moses said. He said that when he heard the idea, it struck him as "being unfair to the public."
But Moses said it wasn't the board's responsibility to decide whether it was legal or legitimate to demand a cover charge from some patrons and not others.
Moses said that the liquor board did suggest that the bar's owners install surveillance cameras in the parking lot and that they beef up their security. He also said that if the bar doesn't "clean up their act" by April, which is when the Tailgates liquor license is up for renewal, then "their license could be in jeopardy."
In June, after a bottle of beer was found on a table after closing time, the board fined the bar $500 and shut it down for one day, Moses said.
Bartender Nicole Beardsley said that Tailgates is a fun bar that is doing its best to maintain a pleasant atmosphere, even if it means discouraging patronage by people from other areas.
"The bottom line is that Tailgates is trying to provide a bar that anyone in Charles County, over the age of 21, can come to and have a good time while they're here," Beardsley said.