Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Free Wilbur

I don't know Wilber Jones, but I am rooting for him. Wilber Jones owns a bar on High Street in Racine and he is in danger of losing his liquor license. It is unclear what, if any, laws have been broken by Wilbur Jones. But that doesn't seem to matter. Wilbur may lose his license, and his livlihood, because of the behavior of his patrons.

Is this fair? Not in my book. I own a retail store. Should my store be closed by the city if criminals enter my store and steal my merchandise? Should my store be closed by the city if my customers commit a crime after leaving my store? No and no, of course. But if you own a liquor license, you may well lose your license because of crimes committed by other people, even if you have broken no laws.

Even more problematic in the grand scheme of things is our increasing tendency to hold the wrong people accountable for crimes. It is the perpetrator of crimes that should be punished, and nobody else.


Ryan said...

"Should my store be closed by the city if my customers commit a crime after leaving my store? "

That question might better read:

"Should my store be closed by the city if my customers consume a product that I sell to them that causes them to act in bad judgement and lowers their reaction time, leading to bad behavior, noise, auto collisions, and crime after leaving my store?"

Of course individuals must be held accountable for their actions. If somebody bought an Indonesian lampshade from you and beat somebody to death with it outside of your store, you wouldn't be held liable. It wouldn't be the lampshade's fault, and it wouldn't be your fault. But Wilbur doesn't sell Indonesian lampshades. He sells alcohol - a product that is dangerous if misused - and the city has a compelling interest to monitor and regulate its sale and purchase, as well as its effects on a particular neighborhood.

Yes, his customers are causing the problem with their behavior. But going after them would require more resources and man-hours than this city (and its taxpayers) are willing to spend. A better solution is cutting the problem off at the source, which in this case is Wilbur. Certainly you concede that he has some responsibility here, considering that he's supplying the product that is leading to the bad behavior of his clientele.

Nobody wants to choke off the man's livelihood, but Wilbur can certainly do a better job of discouraging this behavior among his customers.

Brenda said...

I do agree with you in principle; but isn't is Wilbur's repsonsibility to help maintain a safe prescence in the community?

There are simple things that can help curb the "undesirable" element from frequenting his establishment (bouncers, dress code, etc)

Denis Navratil said...

To Ryan: Thank you for your thoughtful response. It is true that there is a substantial difference between the sale of Indonesian lamps and intoxicating substances, and that a higher degree of regulation is needed with regard to the sale of alcohol. However, whatever regulations that are needed, should, in my view, be clearly stated and applicable to all. There are such laws. Alcohol may not be sold to minors, and may only be sold during certain hours. Now if Wilbur has violated any of the clearly stated laws, I believe that he should be held accountable for his lawbreaking. However, so far as I can discern, Wilbur has not violated any such laws. He is in trouble because of the behavior of his patrons, not because of his own behavior. To me this is fundamentally wrong. You suggest that you might be able "to cut the problem off at the source, which in this case is Wilbur." But your previous paragraph argues that the source is the alcohol, "a product that is dangerous if misused", a claim that could be made of any product, including lamshades. But I digress. I don't think that getting rid of Wilbur will get rid of the problem. Do you think that the troublemakers at Wilburs will be enjoying a quite night of bingo if he loses his license? The problem will simply be moved elsewhere. And finally, I think this kind of nonsense is quasi-prohibitionist, and I don't think prohibition worked then, nor will it work now. And I hate to say this but I think it might be true, but the prohibition appears to be aimed at young black males. The better solution would be to aggressively pursue the lawbreakers, and leave the Wilburs and the law abiding black people to drink in peace.

And Brenda, thank you for your comment. I think Wilbur has a responsibility to run a law abiding business. But I don't think he should be held responsible for the behavior of his customers, especially after they leave his establishment. I suppose that Wilbur could attempt to enforce a dress code or concoct some other method to discourage "undesirables", but I don't see where that is his job. Rather, I think we should try to reshape Racine into a community that will not tolerate the undesirable behaviors. We will not accomplish this task until we hold criminals responsible for their own behavior. Instead, we decide to chase lawful business owners out of town. I think we are making a mistake.

Anonymous said...

How about this angle? He called his place a Hip-Hop club. Hip-Hop culture values crime, violence, and "gangsta" lifestyle and it de-values women and responsibility (except for your money). If you run a place that encourages people with those values to hang out - are you responsible for their behavior?

Denis Navratil said...

Thanks anonymous. I am no fan of the "gangsta" culture in Racine and elsewhere. I do not appreciate a culture, if you can call it that, that devalues women, glorifies violence and discourages responsibility. However, as long as we are talking about responsibility, I still think we should hold individuals responsible for their own behavior. An alternative that I would not advocate is to ban hip-hop music in a not so subtle effort to discriminate against young black men. This is in effect what they are doing when they make life difficult for Wilbur because of the behavior of some of his patrons.