Police didn't find the proverbial smoking gun when they were investigating their case against Michael Houck, but they did find few smoking cigarettes.
Yesterday, Houck, co-owner of Gringada Restaurant and Cantina Columbia's Harper's Choice Village, became the first Howard County restaurant owner fined for violating one of the toughest anti-smoking policies on the East Coast, police said.
What brought him down was an open and shut case of a different sort. The door to the bar area of his restaurant was open and not shut -- as county law requires -- allowing cigarette smoke to enter his dining area, police said.
The offense -- which Houck said occurred because waitresses carrying trays and customers using the bathroom didn't shut the accordion-style door to the bar -- was recorded in Dragnet-quality prose by a police officer who sat at the bar in plain clothes posing as a customer.
Seventeen entries were logged during the 1 1/2 hours Sgt. Dave Richards and the county liquor inspector spent at Gringada.
"1922 hours: W/F [white female] and B/F [black female] lit cigarettes at two different booths. Bar door was open 1934 hours: B/F at bar lit a cigarette. Bar door was open 2007 hours: W/M [white male] with green ball cap lit a cigarette at the bar. Bar door was open.
"During the time we were at the business, smoking took place 16 times in the barroom. The barroom door was open the entire time I saw no efforts made by anyone to inform patrons not to smoke or to close the barroom door."
The law, put into full effect last year, requires that Howard's 300 ,, restaurants ban smoking except in separately ventilated bar areas.
Many restaurant owners initially battled the measure, saying it would drive customers to other counties. But most have complied by going smoke-free or building enclosed smoking areas that can cost as much as $100,000.
The county sued Clyde's, a popular Columbia restaurant, last year, alleging that the restaurant had openly defied the law. Many expected Clyde's defense to be a legal challenge to the law. But rather than fight, the restaurant settled the case and is now smoke-free, county officials said.
Police said about five other restaurants have been cited since September 1996, but those citations were dropped for various reasons. The Gringada's case is the first to result in a fine, according to police.
The investigation resulted from a complaint to police by anti-smoking activists who do spot checks at area establishments.
Peg Browning, chairwoman of Coalition for a Smoke Free Howard County, the local chapter of a statewide group affiliated with the American Cancer Society, said yesterday that those spot checks will continue.
"I don't want to sound like the cigarette police, but I also don't want people to flout the law," said Browning, a former smoker who lost her larynx to cancer.
Senior assistant county solicitor Louis P. Ruzzi, who took the case to court yesterday, said the law is as clear as a smoke-free room.
"A violation is a violation," Ruzzi said.
Yesterday, Houck promised to pay the $100 fine and to remedy his smoking problem.
"We could lose our liquor license, which means we'll go out of business for keeping the door open," Houck said referring to further penalties if he does not comply. "We have to do what they tell us or we're gone."
Pub Date: 3/21/98