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Bar owner has claim for SWAT team search

When a liquor license is granted, the bar or restaurant agrees to let ABC agents come on the premises to inspect for violations.

But apparently something else was going on June 2, 2004, when a police narcotics task force in Manassas Park invaded the Rack ‘N’ Roll Billiard Club with over 50 officers.

According to the civil rights lawsuit filed by the bar owner, David M. Ruttenberg, heavily armed SWAT teams, in full tactical gear, ordered patrons and employees up against the wall to be searched. Only six or seven of the law enforcement personnel were agents of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board, he claimed.

In his complaint, Ruttenberg says that after a search that lasted one or two hours, the team discovered only one ABC violation: Ruttenberg kept two bottles of unchilled Mexican beer that should have been labeled as “samples.” A homeless man employed by Ruttenberg and working as a police informant, who allegedly had participated in on-site drug transactions orchestrated by local police, was the only person arrested.

The scale and scope of this police exercise is at issue in an unpublished case released yesterday from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a 40-page per curiam opinion in Ruttenberg v. Jones, the appellate court reversed Senior U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis’s dismissal of Ruttenberg’s claim challenging the reasonableness of the administrative search, saying “we simply do not know enough about the circumstances surrounding the search and its execution to determine whether the inspection was reasonably conducted” or whether the defendants were eligible for qualified immunity.

By Deborah Elkins

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