Judge refuses to issue injunction to stop new Fremont Street liquor laws

A federal judge refused to issue an injunction Wednesday that would have prevented the city of Las Vegas from enforcing new ordinances that target packaged liquor sales on Fremont Street.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro heard more than three hours of arguments before denying the request for an injunction.

“It’s not for the court to substitute its wisdom for the wisdom of the City Council,” the judge said.

Navarro said her ruling “doesn’t mean that the case is over, of course.”

Two companies that do business as Souvenir Super Mart sought the court order as part of a lawsuit they filed against the city in May. ABC Stores later joined in the plaintiffs’ arguments.

According to the lawsuit, the city’s “liquor regulatory scheme” violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to equal protection, due process and free speech.

City Attorney Brad Jerbic left before the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing, and Deputy City Attorney Philip Byrnes later declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

Byrnes told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he assumes the city will begin enforcing the new ordinances “soon.”

Officials passed the ordinances in response to complaints that drunks were deterring tourists from returning to downtown Las Vegas.

“We have to stop the crumminess that has taken over all of downtown Fremont Street,” Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian said at the May 21 council meeting.

At the meeting, the council approved the second of two ordinances targeting packaged liquor sales. That ordinance allows six existing businesses to continue selling packaged liquor but prohibits any new ones.

At its June 18 meeting, the council passed an ordinance that bans liquor in open glass and aluminum containers on the Fremont Street Experience pedestrian mall.

Attorney Jeff Silvestri, who represents Souvenir Super Mart, asked Navarro to prevent enforcement of all three liquor ordinances.

Silvestri said the city’s lawyers have presented no evidence to show that packaged liquor sales are causing problems on the Fremont Street Experience.

According to the lawsuit, Souvenir Super Mart has “operated harmoniously on the pedestrian mall for more than twenty years.”

“We sell liquor, and you drink it somewhere else,” Silvestri told Navarro.

During his presentation, which lasted more than two hours, Silvestri presented evidence pointing to 10 outdoor taverns as the cause of Fremont Street’s alcohol-related problems. He said the taverns were built by downtown casinos in 2009.

Silvestri said those outdoor bars are selling mixed drinks in containers as large as 100 ounces and encouraging patrons to drink them on Fremont Street.

“None of that is allowed, but it’s happening,” he told Navarro.

The lawyer said he has counted about 55 points of sales for liquor on Fremont Street, in addition to the stores that have licenses to sell packaged liquor.

Silvestri showed Navarro photos of walk-up bars on Fremont Street with displays of large beverage containers accompanied by signs that read, “Take me home.”

The lawyer brought some of those containers to court. One 50-ounce container was shaped like a woman’s leg and featured a red high-heeled shoe at the bottom.

Silvestri said some of the outdoor taverns feature bikini-clad women who serve cocktails and dance on the bar.

“You can understand why people drink on Fremont Street,” the lawyer said.

Customers who purchase packaged liquor at stores on Fremont Street are prohibited from opening it within 1,00o feet of the business.

Silvestri argued that city officials have offered no rational basis for applying that regulation to liquor stores and not taverns.

He also challenged an exception to the ban on new liquor stores that allows 12,000-square-foot or larger grocery stores or pharmacies to sell liquor on the mall.

“If packaged liquor is the problem, why carve out an exception for somebody who’s a grocery store or drug store?” he said.

New advertising restrictions also prohibit packaged liquor stores from displaying prices outside the business.

“If we can’t advertise, how are we going to sell?” Silvestri asked.

Meanwhile, he said, the casinos’ outdoor taverns have large signs advertising the prices of their alcoholic beverages.

Jerbic said taverns differ from packaged liquor stores because they pay more for their licenses. He also said the stores’ employees have been incorrectly telling patrons that they can consume the alcohol as soon as they exit the business.

Byrnes said the tavern operators have unrestricted gaming licenses and are the most heavily regulated businesses in the state.

“The City Council’s not required to address every alcohol problem at the same time,” he added.

Byrnes also said liquor stores sell their alcohol at cheaper prices than the taverns. He argued that lower prices result in higher consumption.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710. Find her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.