- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Prince George’s prosecutors say violations of the county’s dance-hall law remain prevalent, despite a crackdown that resulted in guilty pleas Wednesday from the first club operators charged under the new statute.

“The clubs are still not in compliance although they are aware of the legislation,” said Renee Battle-Brooks, assistant chief of the state’s attorney’s community prosecution unit.

Two operators of the nightclub Music, Sports and Games, or MSG, pleaded guilty Wednesday to operating a dance hall without a license before District Judge John P. Morrissey at the Hyattsville courthouse. Darryl Robinson and Eric Pickens were sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay a $100 fine. Mr. Pickens also was ordered to turn in the liquor license for MSG, which his attorney said he already has done.

“I’m glad to have it behind me,” Mr. Pickens said as he left the courthouse.

Their guilty pleas, hailed as a victory by law-enforcement officials, follow earlier guilty pleas to similar charges by two other MSG operators.

While a handful of other clubs found to be illegally operating have been shuttered by authorities, Prince George’s County’s State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said no other club operators have been criminally charged under the new law. She added that investigations into illegal operations of dance halls are ongoing and that the pleas entered Wednesday were just the “first of many steps.”

The dance-hall law was passed by the County Council in July as a way to further regulate nightclubs.

“It’s important that we have legislation that was defendable and, thanks to Ms. Alsobrooks, it was also winnable,” County Council member Karen R. Toles, Suitland Democrat, said at a news conference after the plea hearing.

The family of 20-year-old Jasmine Banks, who was killed in a drive-by shooting at MSG last summer, is planning to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against the club owners, the family’s attorney, Stan Brown, said.

The woman’s mother, Rochelle Banks, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but said she was thankful the club’s operators were prosecuted.

“No other parent will have to go through this,” Mrs. Banks said of the loss of her daughter.

Prince George’s County police have attributed more than 60 homicides to club-related violence since 2005, including four killings they say involved MSG, or, as it was previously known, the Le Pearl Ballroom. The closure of MSG and other clubs under the dance-hall statute already has helped to reduce violent crime in the surrounding communities, Maj. George Nader said.

But club owners say they think the enforcement of the new law has been unfair, as clubs were cited for operating without a dance-hall license even before an application for one was available.

“They are trying to legitimize the statute,” said William Sherman, an attorney representing Mr. Robinson and the owner of the Temple Hills nightclub Plaza 23. “We’re on the front lines to protect the Constitution.”

As of Dec. 20, the most recent date for which information was available, no new permits had been issued for any clubs in the county since the law was adopted in July. According to the county’s Department of Environmental Resources, only two clubs have valid dance-hall licenses.

Saying she supports licensed, legal businesses, Ms. Toles defended the de facto dancing ban that has occurred in the county as clubs wait to have their dance-hall applications reviewed.

“Everyone knew this law was coming,” she said. “You have to get your documents in line. There is a process.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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