A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order yesterday prohibiting the District from enforcing a new ban on the sale of single cans and bottles of beer and malt liquor in Ward 4. The law was to go into effect at midnight yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled that two stores in Ward 4 that are seeking to repeal the ban have a high likelihood of winning their case. They argue that the ban would discriminate against certain stores in one part of the city and violate the merchants' constitutional rights. The judge found that Ward 4 stores selling alcohol could suffer irreparable financial harm if she didn't temporarily halt the ban, which called for stores to clear their shelves of single bottles of beer by midnight last night.
Collyer scheduled a full hearing for Wednesday on the Ward 4 single-sales ban, which is known as the "Fenty amendment" after its sponsor, D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4). The council passed the provisions of the alcohol ban into law Sept. 30, and it is to be reviewed after four years.
Fenty said yesterday evening that he considered the temporary restraining order a minor legal hurdle. He said other judges have determined that governments must regulate alcohol sales to protect public safety. Also, he said, the city has established a precedent in other neighborhoods by declaring a moratorium on single sales of alcohol in Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan.
"I think we'll still prevail eventually," Fenty said. "Unfortunately, this is a temporary delay in what is otherwise going to be a really good effort to improve the quality of life for people in Ward 4."
The emergency court order was sought by Decatur Liquors and Chekole T. Teshome, owner of Town and Country Market. Craig Reilly, an attorney for the owners, said the city failed to hold public hearings on the proposed ban and added the amendment without proper notice to merchants and residents. Reilly said the ban unfairly singles out a section of the city for regulation.
Traci Hughes, spokeswoman for the D.C. office of the attorney general, said the District believes the public was given proper notice about the measure.
"We will abide by the judge's order, and we'll look forward to presenting our case during the preliminary hearing on Wednesday," she said.
In October, more than 100 grocers from across the city gathered at the Wilson Building to protest the law as discriminatory against small businesses and poorer customers. Organizers said the code unfairly singles out mom-and-pop stores that count on single sales for as much as 50 percent of their income in some months.
After news of the ruling spread, operators of stores on upper Georgia Avenue NW began restocking their shelves with bottles of beer and malt liquor that they had removed earlier in the day. The merchants' mood appeared to be one of cautious optimism.
"We don't know yet" about a final ruling, "but after 10 days . . . we'll see," said Jung Yu, owner of the 3-Way liquor store.
For 20 years, Dave Chung has sold beer as an owner and manager of three Georgia Avenue convenience stores, including his current location at Emerson Street NW. Neighborhood problems are caused by robbers and drug dealers, he said, not by the sale of individual cans and bottles of beer.
He said he was wary lest the ban lead to even more stringent measures, which, he added, could deprive neighborhood store owners of needed business.
He suggested that conditions needed to be viewed in their entirety. "I know gangsters. I know drug dealers. I know prostitutes," Chung said. Council members "have got to understand the whole situation and help the store owners."
In interviews last night, store operators took the position that they would accept a ban that applied to all D.C. merchants, but griped about being singled out because of their location.
They said they try to be good neighbors, call police when there is trouble and keep their blocks free of litter -- particularly empty beer containers.
One of those who said he filed the lawsuit is Negash Negash, who opened his store a year ago, displaying an ample stock of ice cream and delicatessen items, along with its bottles of beer.
When he relayed news of the ruling to his fellow merchants, he said, many responded with a fervent, "Thank God."
For his own part, he said, he felt grateful to live in a country where it is possible for an immigrant to fight city hall and win at least a temporary victory.
"God bless this country," Negash said. "People have a voice."
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.