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Originally published Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle nightclub employees say plea deals in sting aren't fair

At least eight workers at Seattle nightspots who were arrested in a controversial sting operation intend to take their cases to trial because...

Seattle Times staff reporter

At least eight workers at Seattle nightspots who were arrested in a controversial sting operation intend to take their cases to trial because, their attorneys say, the plea deals they were offered amount to no deal at all.

The workers are among 27 bartenders, bouncers and other bar employees criminally charged in Operation Sobering Thought, a sting begun in August that targeted 15 nightclubs in Pioneer Square, Belltown and the University District.

All the charges are gross misdemeanors; most concern serving minors or allowing minors into a tavern. Two bouncers were charged with allowing a firearm inside a tavern.

For months, defense attorneys in the sting cases have complained that City Attorney Tom Carr's office has been inflexible and unreasonable in plea negotiations.

Some of the bouncers who are first-time offenders were offered initial plea deals of 20 days in jail and a year's probation, while the two charged with letting a patron bring a gun into a tavern were offered a year in jail, defense attorneys say.

"I have clients charged with felonies who have gotten better offers than these defendants," said Jessica Riley, who is defending a bouncer from Cowgirls, a Pioneer Square bar. "In this case they didn't seem to be open to any kind of negotiation."

Another defendant's attorney, David Gehrke, said in his three decades practicing law, he has never seen prosecutors recommend significant jail time for first-time offenders, including people charged with driving under the influence and domestic violence.

The plea offers are "way out of whack compared to the charge," Gehrke said. Letting a minor into a tavern "is a human mistake. You don't lock up people for 30 days for that," he said.

"Get better control"

Carr said the plea offers are based strictly on sentencing guidelines and a defendant's history. He said he has been trying to rein in staff attorneys from using their discretion and offering deals that could vary unfairly from case to case.

"I've been trying to get better control over what we do," Carr said. "I worry about being fair to the 20,000 people we charge here" annually.

Carr said his office essentially makes three plea offers in every case it prosecutes, depending on the stage at which the defendant enters a guilty plea: a lenient offer at first appearance, a standard offer during the pretrial phase and a more severe sentence beyond that stage.

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But defense attorneys representing some of those arrested in the August sting say the first plea deals proffered weren't at all lenient.

The offers, apparently, aren't negotiable.

"To some extent, people believe there's ongoing negotiation," Carr said. "You're not supposed to sit there and haggle over days in jail."

3 cases dismissed

Of the 27 individuals charged in the sting operation, three saw their cases dismissed entirely, including one of the bouncers charged with letting a firearm into a tavern.

Prosecutors gave deals to seven others, mostly bartenders, whose cases will be dismissed without guilty pleas as long as they do some community service and commit no further violations.

Rarely, if ever, has the city pursued criminal prosecution of bar workers, who are typically fined by the Liquor Control Board if they violate liquor laws.

Last year's sting operation drew immediate criticism from the night-life industry and questions from City Council members about its timing and use of scarce police resources.

In 2006, the city didn't file charges against anyone for selling liquor to a minor or allowing a minor into a tavern, according to Seattle Municipal Court.

The city did file charges in 2006 against a patron who police say brought a gun into a Lake City Way bar and then brandished it outside. The young man faced a maximum sentence of a year in jail and pleaded not guilty at his first appearance.

Weeks later at his first pretrial hearing, a plea deal was struck: In exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser charge, forfeiting his gun and staying away from the bar, the man got 29 days of electronic home monitoring, court records show.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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