SWAT Team Swarms Bar, Demands to See Alcohol Permit

Raids on businesses are being conducted without search warrants under the guise of regulatory inspections. Examples of these assaults on privacy include arrests of "criminal barbering" and SWAT teams charging in to see current alcohol permits.

Raids on businesses are being conducted without search warrants under the guise of regulatory inspections. Although the Fourth Amendment requires that searches be "reasonable," the SWAT team and other police, some wearing ski masks and carrying automatic weapons, can skirt around the warrantless searches by claiming the purpose was to check lawful permits.

Criminal barbering? If that seems too odd to you, then you are not alone. In the state of Florida, "barbering without a license" is a misdemeanor that landed only three people in jail during the past 10 years. At least until this August when a team of heavily armed Orange County Florida sheriff's deputies and narcotics officers stormed nine predominantly black- and Hispanic-owned barbershops. Officers held barbers and customers at gunpoint, handcuffed some barbers in front of their customers during a busy back-to-school weekend, and turned the shops upside down and inside out.  

Despite the guns and handcuffs, these "sweeps" were conducted without warrants, done under the authority of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspectors who can enter salons at will and ask to see current licenses. However, according to the Orlando Sentinel, these raids were drug sweeps done as 'administrative searches' that are "a disturbingly common end run around the Fourth Amendment." Shop owners said the police demanded the location of where they were hiding illegal drugs and weapons. But after all that, 34 of the 37 arrests were for 'barbering without a license.'

Barbershops are more than a place to get a haircut; they also serve as a "safe place" in communities where people hang out and discuss everything from politics to religion to relationships. These shops can be a cornerstone of the community. Barber Jason Abrams said to the Sentinel, "They made a big charade about it like we were selling drugs or something." After he and eight others were taken to jail and had to explain it was for an expired barbering license, Abrams said, "Everybody laughed at us. Even the judge was like, 'Are you serious?'" Parading him in handcuffs in front of his community instead of fining him "was just uncalled for," Abrams added.

In this case, there was enough of a public stink raised that officials reviewed the raids and arrests. According to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation internal review report, one investigation specialist "does not possess authority to open a locked drawer, locker, container or door," but did so with a pry bar and with a battering ram. The Orlando Sentinel reported on other odd details of the operation, including "property damage, the use of police dogs during inspections and, in some cases, the failure of inspectors to plan or document entire operations."

As wrong as those raids sound, these sweeps without a search warrant are most often conducted in bars and nightclubs under the guise of an alcohol inspection. New Haven, Connecticut, recently sent out the SWAT team to investigate underage drinking. "Police arrested five Yale students, including one who ended up in the hospital after officers Tased and subdued him. Eyewitnesses said a cop punched and kicked and Tased the student with no provocation beyond a request to make a phone call, while other students were threatened with arrest if they used cell phone cameras or sent text messages." The police chief and mayor asked people not to jump to conclusions that the police mishandled arrests and violated people's rights.

In many cases, federal appeals courts have upheld administrative searches that include searching for evidence of criminal activity, as long as the government can "plausibly claim that the primary purpose of the search was regulatory." Reason Magazine points out, "But the Fourth Amendment requires that searches be 'reasonable.' If using a SWAT team to make sure a bar isn't serving 19-year-olds is considered reasonable, it's hard to imagine what wouldn't be."

This wasn't the first time that a SWAT team charged in to investigate allegedly problematic nightlife. During another SWAT nightclub raid, Reason Magazine reported that one eyewitness said some agents wore ski masks and carried assault rifles. "Battering rams, bulletproof shields, assault rifles. They had 30 to 35 people on the floor in cuffs and this whole building was locked down in a matter of three or four minutes," he said.

In Manassas Park, Virginia, local police conducted a massive raid on the Rack 'n' Roll pool hall that included "more than 50 police officers, some of whom were wearing face masks and toting automatic weapons" (video). This raid resulted in three drug-related arrests, but two of them were police informants and the third was an undercover police officer. Although the owner, David Ruttenberg, filed a civil rights suit about the raid, it was determined "the Fourth Amendment doesn't prevent the government from sending a SWAT team to make sure your beer is labeled correctly."

I agree with what Radley Balko, senior editor at Reason Magazine, wrote. "Most Americans probably believe they can't be searched, handcuffed, or have a police gun pointed at them without probable cause. But courts have consistently found that the Fourth Amendment affords less protection for businesses, their employees, and their patrons than it does for private homes. Get caught in the wrong bar, barbershop, or pool hall at the wrong time, and you could find yourself subjected to an 'inspection' that looks and feels suspiciously like a search."

Image Credit: Tim McAteer

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