The list of illegal Houston-area bars that have been shuttered this year keeps on growing. And it gained a new member Thursday as Harris County Judge Elaine Palmer issued a temporary restraining order closing down the Las Palmas bar in southeast Houston.
Las Palmas, which operated from a strip mall near the Gulf Freeway, advertised its closing hours as 6 a.m., according to a news release from the Harris County Attorney’s Office. In June, undercover Houston Police Department officers visited the speakeasy, where they “observed Bud Light, Tecate and Buchanan’s Scotch Whiskey behind the bar,” according to a nuisance petition filed Wednesday night by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.
The officers cleared the bar and arrested Leticia Cardenas Jaimes, the alleged manager of Las Palmas, on suspicion of selling liquor without a permit. Judge Palmer has ordered the bar to remain closed until it gets a liquor license.
“A temporary restraining order is necessary to protect the welfare, health, peace, temperance and safety of the people of the State of Texas,” Palmer wrote in her order.
Vince Ryan, who has served as county attorney since 2009, has at least recently made shutting down unlicensed bars, massage parlors, gambling dens and other illicit businesses a hallmark of his tenure. Over the past year, his office has shut down 15 “nuisance” businesses, according to Rosemarie Donnelly, an assistant county attorney.
Donnelly outlined some of the reasons Ryan focuses on cases like these. “First off, they [unlicensed bars] are illegal,” she said. “They lead to ancillary crime. The DUI situation is also off the charts. The police are constantly having to go to these places.”
“If you have illegal businesses right in the middle of a neighborhood, it affects the quality of life,” she added.
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Officers from the Houston Police Department or the Harris County Sheriff’s Office can and do bring criminal charges against people who work at illegal bars. But the county attorney, who focuses on civil matters, can also file nuisance lawsuits against the landlord.
Donnelly hopes lawsuits like these will make it less appealing for landowners to look the other way while their tenants run speakeasies or brothels out of their properties. And if property owners want to allow a bar, Donnelly says, they should take the “reasonable steps” of making sure their tenants are actually licensed to sell alcohol.
Those are requirements of the nuisance abatement statute and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, she said. She pointed out that the website of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission allows people to look up information on liquor licenses.
“It’s not a matter of doing anything other than clicking a few buttons,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like that’s too much to ask.”