This sting really hurts
So what are you in for? a fellow inmate asked. Brian Armstrong didn't even know. Just that he had been hauled into a squad car by Seattle...
Seattle Times staff columnist
So what are you in for? a fellow inmate asked.
Brian Armstrong didn't even know. Just that he had been hauled into a squad car by Seattle police and tossed into the King County Jail one recent Saturday night. On Wednesday, Armstrong stood in his best dress shirt as he was formally charged with unlawfully selling alcohol to a minor, a state law that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
"It was completely surreal," Armstrong told me afterward from his job at the J&M Café in Pioneer Square. "This is going to cost me thousands of dollars. This is complete overkill."
Armstrong, 35, was one of 15 bartenders and bouncers arrested and jailed overnight in a Seattle police sting that has drawn ire for its zealousness, and for its distinct stench of political preening.
To be fair, the sting (conducted over two weeks in August) showed there are flaws in the system: Undercover minors were allowed in and served liquor at 14 of 15 nightclubs. Bar employees also allowed a gun into two clubs, although one case is being reconsidered.
I have some problems with the Chicken Little-like reaction to underage people using fake ID to get into nightclubs. Is this a crisis gripping the city, worth 900 police hours and $52,000 of taxpayer money?
Worse was the heavy-handed way the sting was conducted. I wondered if, in the days since, City Attorney Tom Carr has started feeling like a Marshal Dillon wannabe — especially when folks like Armstrong are getting rounded up.
"No! No! Are you kidding?" Carr bellowed into the phone the other day. "There's been no blowback; there's been spin. Why aren't the hard questions being asked of the spinners, like why did 14 of the 15 bars allow minors in? If you can't defend your actions, attack the prosecutors, right?"
(For the record, Carr didn't take his first legal drink until he was 19; I asked.)
Who is really on the attack here? Usually, when a minor is served alcohol, the offending bartender is served a summons much like a speeding ticket.
"My client is not a menace to society," said Armstrong's lawyer, Kirk C. Davis.
Armstrong has made that clear. A few days ago, he testified before the Seattle City Council on his arrest while his daughter, Lilliana, peeked out from a carrier on his back. He has two other kids, a wife who works days and a house in Lynnwood. (They couldn't afford to buy in Seattle.) Now he faces legal bills, fines and possible jail time for something that he says was not his fault.
"It's the front of the house," Armstrong said. "We expect that everyone else is doing their job so we can do ours. If people are in the bar, they should be of age."
Carr would have none of it: "Have you ever met anybody who was charged with anything who didn't say the police should spend their time doing something else?
"Lots of people that we have prosecuted are really good people," Carr said, citing Seattle Metropolitan Urban League President James Kelly and state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge.
And I'll bet they did the frog-march through the streets, right? Didn't think so.
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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