Sheriff P.J. Tanner believes businesses with liquor licenses should close by 2 a.m. -- and be shut down for good if they become hot spots for crime.
Tanner says he soon plans to propose an ordinance for the Beaufort County, similar to one already on Hilton Head Island, making it easier to revoke business licenses for nightclubs, bars and similar establishments where law enforcement calls are frequent.
Tanner's suggestion is among other changes in law enforcement aimed at stemming violent crime on St. Helena Island, which he believes have become rampant in the past eight months. Earlier this month, Tanner and Solicitor Duffie Stone said they plan to subpoena people who have witnessed shootings in the area, including one at a nightclub, to force their testimony.
Investigations have been stymied by lack of cooperation, he said.
Hilton Head's ordinance, adopted in 2009, allows Town Council to suspend or revoke business licenses at establishments where a high rate of service calls originate. The town can send notices outlining problems and solutions, and if changes aren't made within 30 days, council can vote to revoke the business license.
"My request for the county is any liquor-license location that also has a Beaufort County business license close at 2 a.m.," Tanner said. "And that they create a nuisance ordinance similar to the Town of Hilton Head."
State law prohibits bars from pouring liquor after 2 a.m., but beer and wine can be served around the clock unless a county or municipality puts a stricter ordinance in place. Bars on Hilton Head are required to stop selling alcohol or allowing on-premise consumption between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Tanner said such an ordinance would bring consistency to all businesses in unincorporated parts of the county, but it could be particularly helpful for dealing with a place like Midnight Soul Patrol, a nightclub on the southern end of St. Helena, where two men were shot to death and two others wounded June 21. That incident is one of four reports of shots fired there since January 2011, according to Sheriff's Office records.
Without such an ordinance, shutting down a business can be difficult, even if shootings, assaults and alcohol-license violations occur. Licenses for businesses and alcohol sales, according to officials, are designed to let owners correct problems rather than face penalties. Often, only fines are issued, Tanner said.
County Councilman Bill McBride, who represents St. Helena, said he won't comment on Tanner's proposal before it comes before council but said it would take law enforcement and the community working together to reduce crime in the area.
"Just because a club is closed doesn't necessarily mean it will eliminate the problems itself," he said. "It might lessen the tension, but it won't eliminate this type of crime."
Currently, Beaufort County Codes Enforcement can only revoke a license if the business violates county, state or federal codes. Also under the county's current ordinance, criminal by the business license-holder can be grounds to revoke a license, but criminal activity that occurs on site but outside the establishment or by patrons is not.
A fire-code inspection July 3 at Midnight Soul Patrol found minor infractions, most of which have since been addressed, according to Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire Marshal Scott Baldwin. The nightclub also is up to date on all its permits and business licenses.
The Sheriff's Office Alcoholic Beverages Control Team inspected Midnight Soul Patrol on July 3. A violation report was filed for "permitting criminal activity" in relation to the June 21 shootings, but the Sheriff's Office has no authority to issue penalties for the violation. Instead, the report was sent to the S.C. Department of Revenue, which will decide what the penalties will be, if any.
Tanner said he respects the Department of Revenue's work with alcohol-license violations, but he thinks a nuisance ordinance would allow local officials to respond more quickly to extreme problems.
"If their business license is revoked, then their alcohol license can't exist," he said.
The Town of Hilton Head Island has only used the ordinance once since it was enacted in 2009, but it recently notified another business, Simmons Fishing Camp, it could be closed if improvements aren't made. Deputies have been dispatched to Simmons Fishing Camp more than 200 times since January 2011. In the same period, 28 calls have been responded to at Midnight Soul Patrol.
Tanner said he doesn't want to put anyone out of work, but frequent violence could require such measures.
"We're not trying to put people out of business, but the safety of the citizens comes first," he said. "It's a hard line to take, but we've got to pick one sometimes."
Related content: Midnight Soul Patrol could lose license pending Dept. of Revenue decision, July 24, 2012
Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB.