A downtown Santa Monica liquor store owner who was sued by the city attorney's office this week for allegedly selling alcohol to inebriated vagrants claimed that he has been unfairly singled out for harassment.
Edward I. Mizrahi, owner of Frank's Liquor Store at 115 Broadway, said he has discouraged drunks from using his store. But he said the run-down area is a "target for transients" living in nearby Palisades Park and the beach.
"The city likes to think that I am the cause of all the panhandlers in the area," said Mizrahi, who has owned the store for 10 years. "But I have no control over these things. I have tried to cooperate with the authorities."
The civil suit against Mizrahi, filed in Santa Monica Superior Court, is part of a crackdown on alcoholic panhandlers and was the result of a three-month investigation by police and a private detectives hired by the city, according to a city official.
The suit charges that Frank's Liquor is a public nuisance and seeks an injunction stopping the store, which displays neon beer signs in its windows, from selling alcohol to intoxicated people or allowing those people to congregate nearby. The suit also seeks $12,500 in penalties for the alleged practice of selling alcohol to inebriates.
"The principal objective of this lawsuit is to resolve the problems this liquor store has been creating," City Atty. Robert M. Myers said. "However, it's not the only liquor store that sells alcohol to public inebriates. . . . Frank's was sued because it's more visible, but we've sent letters to other liquor stores urging them to police themselves."
Myers' action comes on the heels of widespread criticism of his refusal to prosecute nonviolent homeless people. But the city attorney denied that the suit was filed because of outside pressures. He said public drunkenness has been a longtime concern in Santa Monica, where about 2,000 public inebriates were arrested last year. Myers said the problem is most severe west of Lincoln Boulevard, home to 17 liquor stores and most of the city's transients.
Myers also pointed out that the action against Frank's Liquor follows recommendations made by a task force on the homeless. The city attorney said his office has photographs and videotapes showing drunks with liquor from the store. He said five people were arrested there on suspicion of public drunkenness recently and that the four who gave blood tests exceeded the sobriety level.
Deputy City Atty. Jeffrey W. Holtzman added that police arrested 185 people for public inebriation near the store between February, 1983, and November, 1984. He said that was twice the number of arrests made elsewhere.
Ken Schonlau of the Clare Foundation, which provides services for alcoholics and their families, applauded the suit against Frank's. Schonlau estimated that 30% of the city's homeless population has a drinking problem.
"It's a location where public drunks accumulate," Schonlau said. "If the city has the time and energy to find out which stores are selling to obviously intoxicated people, I think it's very appropriate to bring some kind of action against them"
Mayor Christine E. Reed said she also welcomed the suit.
"I think that anything we as a society can do to discourage these retail stores from servicing the indigent alcoholic people of this city is important," Reed said. "If we cut off their source of supply . . . perhaps people will go elsewhere to buy their booze."
Reed's words were echoed by City Council members Tuesday night when they acknowledged the suit in a discussion on the homeless. Councilman Alan S. Katz said the homeless, who reportedly number more than 1,000 in Santa Monica, are a deep concern and a potentially "explosive" problem.
Councilman David G. Epstein, a critic of Myers for his refusal to prosecute the nonviolent homeless, said he was "very proud" of the police and the city attorney for filing the suit against Frank's Liquor.
The council also scheduled further discussion on recommendations made by the homeless task force earlier this year. A report submitted by City Manager John Jalili showed that about 80% of the group's recommendations have been implemented. The report emphasized the fact that Santa Monica is pursuing legal and social remedies to the homeless problem.
The report noted that the city is considering a lawsuit against Los Angeles County for failing to meet the needs of the mentally disabled. The city is also funding social service agencies that help the homeless, urging the county to establish a day-care center in the Westside, allowing people to sleep in their cars, making public restrooms more available, developing a brochure on the homeless and seeking assistance from the National Institute of Mental Health.