There wasn’t much of an opportunity for supporters and attorneys for Plaza Mexico Restaurant to speak or give their side of the story at last week’s License Commission meeting – a meeting that aimed to discuss taking away the restaurant’s licenses – but the attorney this week spoke out about the evidence presented and said the case was a “reach.”
The License Commission began a hearing into Plaza Mexico at its meeting on May 5, but a lengthy police presentation using videos and focusing on reports going back to 2013 took up most all of the three-hour meeting. That meeting was continued, and a follow up has been scheduled for this Tuesday, May 19.
Plaza Mexico attorney Sam Vitali of Lynn said he plans to mount a vigorous defense of the video evidence and also provide numerous supporters and witnesses to testify.
Police are aiming to strip the restaurant of its licenses, saying that it has impeded investigations and should have been more aware and vigilant concerning drug dealing going on in the restaurant.
“What we saw on the tapes is a very serious matter, but it’s not a question of whether it’s a pattern of activity over a period of time,” said Vitali. “It’s people who got arrested for distributing drugs, who made serious attempts of disposing of those drugs. They were not dealing drugs right out there in the open. It’s not like a drug dealer was going around in the open and you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know…The tapes don’t show that. The police have speculation and opinion, but not fact.”
Tapes shown at the May 5 meeting detailed a one-hour snippet of events on Dec. 23, 2013 where one man who was convicted of drug dealing, and another man who has been charged but not convicted, are seen allegedly hanging out in the restaurant. They never really ordered much in the way of food or drink, but did go to the bathroom several times and are seen on camera going out to the back parking lot to allegedly deal drugs on several occasions.
At the same time, another man parked in a car in the parking lot was also dealing drugs and was arrested by happenstance on the same night when police came in to inspect the club’s licenses.
Police said the manager and bar maid, both of whom are seen on the video playing pool or cleaning up, should have been aware of the criminal activity. They point to licensing rules that state anyone going outside frequently or to the bathroom frequently should be flagged by management.
Vitali said the claims are unrealistic.
“They have come to this conclusion after an 18-month investigation that included watching 16 hours of tape from 16 different cameras,” said Vitali. “With the benefit of hindsight and having spent more than a year looking at the evidence, they were able to make these conclusions…Drug dealers don’t come in with a scarlet letter on them saying, ‘I’m on probation and I’ve got drugs on me.’ It’s an unrealistic expectation to me to have the employees act as police officers. They cooperated, gave information and provided tape. At the end of the day, the employees weren’t schooled in how to spot a drug transaction or didn’t see drug transactions. The rules and regulations don’t require a manager to act as a police officer.”
Vitali said he plans to cross examine several of the police officers at the May 19 meeting. He will also call the barmaid and the manager who are shown on the tape. Also, the head of the area neighborhood association will testify in favor of the Plaza Mexico ownership.
“I don’t think he would do that, representing all of those people, if he had any information to bring forward that showed the restaurant in a bad light,” said Vitali.
Finally, one large and looming question, is why the police decided to push right now to strip the licenses.
Police have said that an incident earlier this year where a juvenile was stabbed in the restaurant was the impetus, but Vitali said he has his doubts – and that case isn’t even being considered in the hearing due to an ongoing Grand Jury investigation.
“Why have they brought up all of these cases going so far back after such a long period of time?” he asked. “At the end of 2013, they approved their license without comment and at the end of 2014 they approved the license again. It seems to me it’s a little late to the dance to bring in an event that happened in 2013 and use it to say I’m improper.”