Are you a bar, brewery or distillery owner in Virginia? If so, you’d better know your ABCs! You thought you learned them in grade school, or certainly by age 21, when you were able to purchase your first alcoholic beverage in the Commonwealth. But if you make, sell or distribute alcohol, you must be familiar with Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), or you stand to face big fines or worse, the loss of your alcohol license. If you receive a violation notice and are scheduled for a hearing before the ABC, call May Law to be advised of your rights and responsibilities.
What is the Virginia ABC?
Virginia ABC is a division of state government that enforces laws related to “the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.” They provide useful information and trainings to individuals and business owners who include alcohol on their menus or for import, resale and larger distribution – but they also have a team of agents that monitor your performance and reports. ABC agents have full police power, meaning they engage in regular compliance checks (to see if your cashier has failed to ask for proper identification of a would-be consumer, for example), or investigate and prosecute criminal drug, gang and gambling activities. While an ABC agent may carry a different badge, the implications of an ABC sting carry very serious consequences.
What happens if I am charged with an ABC violation?
If you or your business is charged with a disciplinary matter, (such as an ABC violation, contested license application or franchise issue), the charges will be adjudicated by the ABC’s Hearings, Appeals and Judicial Services Division. While the ABC Board strives to “conduct full, fair and impartial hearings,” the standards at play in an ABC courtroom can appear very different from your typical General District or Circuit Courtroom. Depending upon the Agent offering testimony, the judge, or the evidence presented at a hearing or appeal, a “defendant” business could walk into a completely unfamiliar situation where your livelihood is at stake! Don’t go it alone – a May Law attorney who has been part of ABC hearings at all levels can navigate these unforeseen issues.
What are some examples of ABC charges?
Any violation of ABC rules or procedures could result in a charge that moves to a hearing phase. A good guide to all regulations may be found at https://www.abc.virginia.gov/enforcement/virginia-codes-and-regulations, which has links to the Virginia Code sections and additional sources where control of alcohol in the Commonwealth is codified and further explained. Contested ABC license or permits, disputes between alcohol wholesalers and manufacturers, licensee management and approval of an area for exercise of the licensee privilege may also result in proceedings. These may be straightforward charges, or can result in the need for more complex negotiation.
What is the process for an ABC hearing?
If you face an alleged violation of Virginia ABC law, you will be notified by a letter, to include docketing (scheduling) info (see https://www.abc.virginia.gov/enforcement/hearings-and-appeals/scheduled-dockets). You may opt to consent to an alleged violation, which means payment of a fine and/or ABC license suspension. If you do not wish to consent, you may negotiate with an ABC legal liaison. If you are unable to resolve the issue through negotiation, you will be given notice of an informal conference and formal hearing dates.
Although called “informal,” the initial conference is a real legal proceeding, and the layperson should know that witnesses, evidence, stipulations, motions and other procedural steps are determined at this point. The formal hearing will follow, and it can be difficult to have a continuance granted if you are not adequately prepared to defend your side of the allegation. Not having time to hire an attorney will not get you an extension to prepare your case!
What happens after the hearing?
An initial decision on your case will be made by the hearing officer or judge, and parties on the matter will receive a report by mail. You may accept the decision or appeal – but appealing requires a filing fee and appropriate notice to be given, as well as a trip to Richmond for the appeal itself. An ABC panel will hear your appeal, and may end up dismissing charges, imposing penalties or take any range of action against you or your business. While this step will result in a final decision by the ABC Board, you may continue to pursue your cause or defense in your jurisdiction’s Circuit Court, or up to the Virginia Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, if the issue rises to that level!
ABC violations and enforcement actions are common to restaurants and all manner of small businesses, but they can be a financial and resource detriment. When you are not sure what may be at stake when the ABC comes knocking, contact an attorney at May Law, LLP to consult on how best to protect your personal and business interests.