A federal civil rights lawsuit alleges the city of Brookhaven is targeting African-American clubs to put them out of business through the recent overhaul of its alcohol ordinance that now requires certain venues pay $100,000 in alcohol license fees and not sell booze on Sundays.

The city states it was forced to create a new category of “entertainment venue” and raise its alcohol license fees because of recorded instances of rising crime rates along Buford Highway caused by certain late-night venues and denies any racial profiling.

“To stem what it perceives as an influx of ‘hip hop’ restaurants, the city of Brookhaven has adopted and enforced a set of confusing, content-based ordinances that it believes will cripple the city’s restaurants which cater to African Americans,” begins the lawsuit filed April 13 in U.S. District Court by attorney Cary Wiggins on behalf of his clients Josephine, Medusa Restaurant & Lounge and XS Restaurant & Lounge.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the city to issue their alcohol licenses and are also seeking damages and attorneys’ fees, saying the exorbitant fees violate state law.

Brookhaven Communications Director Burke Brennan said the city police department is not profiling businesses based on race.

“Brookhaven police do not engage in racial profiling of any sort. To the contrary, the department is renowned for its outreach in minority communities,” he said. 

“While we cannot comment on the specifics of pending litigation, in September 2017, the Brookhaven City Council amended its alcohol ordinance to structure fees based upon the utilization of police resources,” Brennan added. “Under the new fee structure, Brookhaven residents are providing less of a subsidy for police to an area around a handful of entertainment venues which have a disproportionate amount of criminal activity.”

Cary Wiggins.

All venues in the lawsuit are located at Northeast Plaza on Buford Highway and all are also battling the Alcohol Board’s recent decisions to not renew their alcohol licenses for refusing to pay the full $100,000 in fees as they appeal the amount in DeKalb County Superior Court. The venues remain open and able to sell alcohol during the appeals process.

Entertainment venues — those with a DJ, dance floor or stage — are also not allowed to sell alcohol on Sundays, however, which is typically a busy night for venues open only during the weekends.

“Although many restaurants located in the city offer prerecorded ambient music, restaurants in the city which cater to African American customers frequently employ a turntablist (or deejay) or sound engineer to selected and play prerecorded music, frequently hip hop. Sundays are traditionally the busiest days for these restaurants,” according to the lawsuit.

The city says the steep fee stems from concerns about crime it says it related to Buford Highway nightlife. In the latest example, on April 9, champion boxer Floyd Mayweather’s bodyguard was shot and injured in front of a Buckhead hotel after Mayweather hosted a party at Medusa.

The city also cites a shooting last year in the Northeast Plaza parking lot following an altercation at Medusa. That shooting eventually led to the arrest of several alleged gang members by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia. The city tried to revoke Medusa’s alcohol license, but the Alcohol Board overruled that decision.

Before this year, alcohol license fees for these venues were approximately $5,000. The City Council also approved as part of its alcohol ordinance rewrite to roll back last call hours from 3 a.m. to 2 a.m. as another way to try to curb crime they say is the result of late-night venues. The earlier last calls went into effect April 10.

The federal lawsuit notes the licensee for Josephine’s was born in Cameroon, Africa, and is a naturalized citizen. The licensees for Medusa and XS Restaurant & Lounge were born in Ethiopia and are also naturalized citizens. Each club caters to a primarily African and African-American crowds and were treated differently than clubs in the city that catered to a majority white crowd, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges the venues were subjected to consistent police inspections and bans on music and dancing. It also alleges the city “assembled officials from DeKalb County police and fire departments, as well as city police, code enforcement, building and fire personnel, to inspect the restaurants with greater frequency than other alcohol licensed establishments.”

Wiggins is also representing Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in unincorporated DeKalb County in a federal racial bias lawsuit alleging the county targeted the Ethiopian restaurant through enforcement crackdowns of minor infractions.

“The city’s actions have deprived, and will continue to deprive, the restaurants of property rights and liberty interests protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and corresponding provisions of the Georgia Constitution,” the lawsuit says.

Brennan said city police and code enforcement have conducted unannounced inspections of many other alcohol license holders.

“There are several which may be cited for alcohol license violations once the investigations are complete,” he said.

City officials explained in hearings before the Alcohol Board that they came up with the $100,000 amount based on the $225,000 annual legal settlement the city reached in 2014 with the Pink Pony, a strip club that serves alcohol. As part of that settlement, the Pink Pony agreed to pay the police department $225,000 a year for six years to cover public safety costs, reimburse the city for its legal fees, donate land near the club along Peachtree Creek for the Peachtree Creek Greenway linear park, and contribute up to $75,000 for that park. The club is expected to close in Brookhaven in 2020.

The lawsuit points out that the Pink Pony is not affected by the alcohol ordinance rewrite and remains open until 4 a.m. and also open on Sundays, which it deems an unfair enforcement of the alcohol ordinance. The city states it is following a settlement agreement made four years ago.

“The Pink Pony operates under the terms and conditions of a settlement agreement approved by City Council in 2014. It should be noted that under that settlement, this establishment remits a quarter million a year to Brookhaven to operate,” Brennan said.

Rush Lounge, on Buford Highway and represented by attorney Alan Begner, has also appealed the Alcohol Board’s denial of its alcohol license renewal, stating the $100,000 fee is illegal. That venue is not part of the federal lawsuit.

The city charges a $4,000 fee to sell liquor on premises for restaurants, dinner theaters and event venues. The charge to these categories to sell wine or beer is approximately $1,000.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.