Precedent for the Rack n’ Roll Case

Monday, March 5th, 2007

I realize many people are going to be reluctant to believe that a city would knowingly set up drug deals in a legitimate business in order to seize that business as part of a redevelopment scheme. But that’s what I and several others think is what happened to David Ruttenberg in Manassas Park.

And while such occurrences aren’t common, they aren’t unheard of. Here’s one from Seattle that was settled five years ago:

The owner of a Central Area nightclub embroiled in a legal battle with the city and state for the past seven years has settled the last part of his lawsuit with state Liquor Control Board.

The liquor board agreed to pay $525,000 to Oscar’s II. The owner, Oscar McCoy, claimed his constitutional rights were violated when city and state agencies tried to label the East Madison Street club a drug nuisance and deny it a liquor license.


The city settled its half of the suit Feb. 1 for $675,000. The liquor board and McCoy’s lawyers waited until yesterday to make their deal final — the day the case was scheduled to go to trial in King County Superior Court.

“What can I say? I’m glad it’s behind us,” McCoy said. “It was a nightmare.”

Informants for the Seattle Police Department made 18 crack cocaine buys at the club from 1995 to 1997, according to court documents.

The buys resulted in no arrests, but were intended to prove that the club should be closed as a drug magnet. In April 2000, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the city had violated McCoy’s right to due process. McCoy sued over his financial losses caused by the revoked liquor license.

What’s funny (and what Ruttenberg can expect, too) is that even after shelling out more than $1 million, the local government refused to admit its overreach:

Representatives of the liquor board likewise said their settlement had nothing to do with the merits of the suit.

“The board believes that its agents acted in a professional and lawful manner,” said Gigi Zenk, spokeswoman for the board. “They didn’t violate any laws. This was a prudent business decision.”

To which the plaintiff’s attorney replied:

“No one will ever apologize in a lawsuit,” said Dave Osgood, McCoy’s lawyer.

“The way you get that is in the size of the settlement. And nothing says I’m sorry like $1.2 million.”

There’s a more thorough accounting of the case here, in the Seattle Times. Note the similarities. The club owner reached out to police and asked them to help him get rid of drug activity. The police asked favors of him, and he obliged. Then they turned on him. The state’s liquor board was a mere formality than any attempt to get at the truth. They took everything the police said at face value, and viewed everything the bar owner said with suspicion.

What’s particularly interesting about the Oscar’s II case is that the city seems to have paid out the settlement in order to keep secret the way it handles its drug policing. The city’s alt weekly The Stranger speculated that this was to save the city embarrassment. If it came out that both the buyers and sellers at Oscar’s II were working for the police, then the police become the source of the very problem for which they were trying to shut down the bar.

That may provide a blueprint for Ruttenberg. If he can get his federal lawsuit far enough along to get a discovery order requiring Manassas Park police to turn over the names of their confidential informants and all documents pertaining to the the town’s campaign against him, my guess is that the town will almost certainly settle. I have a hunch there’s some really embarrassing stuff in there that town officials would rather the public not see.

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