Washington County liquor board officials fined a Hagerstown restaurant $1,000 on Wednesday for what they said was failure to control illegal drug activity at the establishment.
Charles F. Mades, treasurer of the Board of License Commissioners for Washington County, said the three-member board decided to fine El Palenque Cantina Restaurant at 204 E. Franklin St. because the business has had several violations of the law since it opened in 2007.
Co-owners Jose and Craribel Arias, and their attorney, Arthur Schneider, appeared before the liquor board on Wednesday to respond to charges from Hagerstown police that illegal drug activity occurred in and outside the restaurant last month.
"I'm not saying your customers are intelligent, but they're smart enough to know to come in there," Mades said. "I think they're taking advantage of you ... and it's going to be up to you to get a handle on that by prohibiting certain customers from coming in."
Mades suggested that Jose Arias give unwanted customers "trespass letters" to ban them from the business.
"The message has to be sent," Mades said. "I appreciate the cooperation between you and the police department. The best message to be sent to your customer base it that you're not going to put up with that anymore ... these people have no respect for you or your business. It's up to you to get a handle on it."
Jose Arias told the liquor board before the fine was imposed that he has taken several measures, including allowing only one person in the restroom at a time to curb illegal activity.
"We try to keep that clean. We don't allow too many people in the back," Arias said.
Hagerstown police Detective Nick Varner said the incident in question occurred Dec. 9, when people inside the business went outside and allegedly sold crack cocaine to police agents.
Varner said the alleged drug dealers then went back inside and, recognizing a police presence, stashed the money in a crack in the restaurant's bar area.
Arias said he didn't see the drug activity take place.
Varner said police recently have also experienced trouble in the neighborhood surrounding El Palenque.
"We have never had an issue with cooperation down there," Varner said of Jose Arias' collaboration with police.
The board said the Ariases have 30 days to appeal the fine in Washington County Circuit Court.
Jose Arias, who also is a co-owner of the Broad Axe restaurant at 28 W. Washington St. in Hagerstown, said earlier this month that he intends to sell that restaurant due to the sluggish economy.