Rafael’s restaurant in Westminster was fined $2,000 and had its liquor license suspended for nine months nearly a year after a pedestrian was killed by a driver who the county attorney’s office said had 21 drinks from the restaurant earlier that night.
Carroll County’s Board of License Commissioners held a six-hour violation hearing on Thursday at Carroll Community College and determined Rafael’s violated three of its rules after arguments were heard about whether a bartender knowingly served alcohol to a customer who showed signs of being intoxicated on the night of Feb. 14, 2019.
The customer, John Benjamin Batz of Westminster, is serving eight years for negligent manslaughter after he struck and killed Eric Hendler, 31, of Hampstead who was walking northbound on Brodbeck Road.
Jim Almon, assistant county attorney, said at the hearing Batz was at Rafael’s between 8 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. and said video surveillance from the restaurant showed he had multiple Miller Lites, shots of Fireball and glasses of Grand Marnier, and his behavior was consistent with being under the influence.
The county accused the restaurant of violating state and board regulations which included selling or providing alcoholic beverage to an intoxicated person, consumption of alcohol while working, false statement, illegal conduct and peace and safety of the community.
Clark Shaffer, an attorney representing Rafael’s, said he did not contest that Batz was drunk, but he questioned “whether he was visibly under the influence” while a bartender served him.
Cpl. Thomas Vanik of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, was called as a witness and explained how police found receipts from Rafael’s inside Batz’s car. Further investigation included interviews with restaurant employees who also noted Batz’s intoxication and how he turned down a request for an Uber.
Shaffer questioned the credibility of one of the bartenders and held up a printout he said was her criminal record on Maryland Judiciary Case Search.
Vanik said he took employee statements at “face value” and did not have reason to believe the bartender was lying.
The board viewed footage from the restaurant’s surveillance video that was pointed at one of the two bar areas occupied by about eight people. Almon said it showed Batz giving clear signs of intoxication like pointing his middle finger, dropping his sunglasses and receipt on the ground and swaying in his stool, all while being poured drinks by a bartender.
Shaffer said Batz picked up his sunglasses without falling off the stool and added “for all you know, he dropped a penny on the ground” when Almon noted Batz laid his forehead down on the bar.
While viewing the video, board member George Barnhart called Batz “animated.”
“It appears to me that the bar is encouraging drinks,” board chair David Brauning, Sr. said.
“It looks like there’s multiple intoxicated people there,” board member George Harmening said.
Shaffer said to the board members that they are supposed to act as judges and wait until hearing all evidence before delivering their judgment.
“You made it pretty clear that we lost,” he said. “Have you already made up your mind?”
After Almon said video of Batz throwing down a shot glass after he drinks is one of the last clear signs of visible intoxication, Shaffer argued it isn’t.
“Clark, you gotta be kidding me,” Brauning said.
Shaffer said when the stakes are this high, evidence should be clear and convincing. He later said Batz’s behavior had to appear to be exuberant to others, affecting his motor skills, for instance.
He said Batz showed that behavior toward the end of the video when he fell down the steps leaving the restaurant and staggered and stumbled when he stood back up.
Almon noted a toxicologist report showed Batz’s blood alcohol concentration level was significantly high after the collision. Shaffer noted nobody knows what Batz was doing between 12:30 a.m., when he left the restaurant, and 3:30 a.m., the time of the crash. He could have drank more alcohol, Shaffer said.
Both parties acknowledged Batz was in his car for multiple hours in the restaurant’s parking lot after he left the bar.
Allan Hendler, father of Eric Hendler who was killed in the collision, told the board how upset he was that no one from the restaurant reached out to his family.
“We would not be here today … if someone had called the police,” he said.
Hendler said later in an interview that Batz showed he was intoxicated multiple times in the video and was served anyway. He said employees should have notified police and it “would have saved my son’s life.”
“I’d like to see him lose his license,” Hendler said of Rafael Javier, the owner of the restaurant.
Hendler added he doesn’t want to see anyone be destroyed, but that his life was destroyed because of it.
The board and council agreed to drop five charges down to three: selling or providing alcoholic beverage to an intoxicated person, illegal conduct and peace and safety of the community.
The commission found Rafael’s culpable of all three, imposed a $2,000 fine, which Keith Benfer, liquor inspector, said is the most the board can give, and a 90-day suspension of its liquor license for each of the violations.
The board has not yet given a date for the start of the suspension, and Shaffer said there were no plans to appeal.
Almon said an appeal would have to be filed within 30 days of the issuance of the board’s written decision and it would go to the county’s circuit court.
Brauning said he encourages Javier to apologize to the bereaved.
Batz, 32, of the 3600 block of Turkeyfoot Road, pleaded not guilty under an agreed statement of facts to negligent manslaughter by vehicle, which is functionally a guilty plea.
In Carroll County Circuit Court on Dec. 10, 2019, Judge Thomas F. Stansfield sentenced Batz to 15 years with all but eight years suspended, as well as five years of probation, online court records show. Batz was ordered to pay just over $5,000 in restitution to a relative of the victim.