In the wee hours of an August morning two years ago, several Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies entered Peanuts, a West Hollywood disco that caters to young adults, and, after one of them observed an 18-year-old woman with a glass of beer, ordered the more than 350 patrons to leave.
A judge later dismissed a charge against the disco's owner of allowing alcohol to be sold to a minor, after the young woman testified that she was merely holding the glass for a friend who was over 21 and legally old enough to drink.
But, apparently, the matter didn't end there.
The disco's management and the Sheriff's Department say the incident marked the start of a long-simmering conflict--one that has helped to sharply divide the city's Business License Commission and that may soon play itself out before the City Council.
Sheriff's officials insist that the disco has become a public nuisance, citing complaints from neighbors about noise, vandalism, violence and underage drinking involving its patrons.
Josh Feld, the disco's owner, tells a different story. He has accused members of the Sheriff's Department of harassing employees and customers of the popular establishment at 7969 Santa Monica Blvd. and claims his problems began after he filed a complaint against a deputy in 1986.
The issue has become especially heated--and personal--in the last two weeks, since the Business License Commission voted 3 to 2 to bar minors from Peanuts as a condition of renewing the disco's licenses to permit dancing and serve food.
The decision, which followed three hours of often stormy testimony, caught even some who welcomed it by surprise, since the Sheriff's Department and the Business License Department staff had recommended less severe sanctions, such as stationing a uniformed security guard in the parking lot.
Feld has said that he will appeal to the City Council. The sanction cannot be enforced while the appeal is pending.
"They essentially threw the death penalty at him," said Arlen H. Andelson, an attorney for Feld. "They're, in effect, telling him, 'We're going to cut you off from 60% of your clientele.' "
Scott Forbes, one of the two dissenting commissioners and a nightclub owner himself, agreed.
"I didn't see why we had to cut off his hands when a spanking would have been more appropriate," said Forbes, whose last-minute appeal to his fellow commissioners "not to go overboard" fell on deaf ears.
A Different View
Commission Chairman Lester Hirsch, who voted to bar minors from the disco, took a different view.
He said the action signaled that the community "isn't as distant and unresponsive" to the kinds of problems Peanuts is accused of having as in the days before West Hollywood's incorporation, "when the county automatically churned out (license) renewals without any mechanism for examining their merits."
Andelson accused the Sheriff's Department of soliciting residents to testify against Peanuts before the commission, asserting that the department conducted "the most effective get-out-the-vote campaign the city has seen."
But in all, 11 people showed up to testify against the disco, far fewer than the 45 who spoke on its behalf, prompting Capt. Mark Squiers of the Sheriff's Department to accuse Feld's lawyers of intimidating residents who would have otherwise appeared.
Squiers, who has headed the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station since December, 1986, several months after Feld claims his problems began, has complained of unfair personal attacks directed against him by Feld's supporters.
"In my 22 years in law enforcement, I've never been subjected to the kind of personal castigation as has taken place in this matter," he said. "I've taken a bath on this one."
Squiers was angered by a letter sent to residents living near the disco by Barrett McInerney, another of Feld's attorneys. It accused the Sheriff's Department of "gross distortions" in compiling a 200-page report about Peanuts for the commission, and asserted that Squiers and other executives at the station were the subject of an internal Sheriff's Department investigation.
The letter included summaries of numerous interviews deputies conducted with residents living near the disco, which McInerney criticized as "a questionable use" of law enforcement resources.
Capt. Tom Hehir, who heads the department's Internal Investigations Bureau, acknowledged that an investigation is being conducted, but said that it did not involve Squiers or the station's other executives.
A Sheriff's Department source who did not want to be identified said the bureau was looking into a complaint against Deputy Sean Collingsworth, 32, accused by Feld in January of harassing employees and patrons of the disco. Collingsworth, a nine-year veteran of the department, was cleared of any improper conduct after a similar investigation in 1986, the source said.