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Turf wins trial

A Fargo bar that came under fire last fall for its involvement in a near-fatal drinking episode was found not guilty Wednesday in Cass County District Court of allowing minors inside.

A Fargo bar that came under fire last fall for its involvement in a near-fatal drinking episode was found not guilty Wednesday in Cass County District Court of allowing minors inside.

A six-person jury took 2½ hours to return the two misdemeanor verdicts for the Bison Turf and its owner, Pete Sabo. While Assistant State's Attorney Lisa McEvers blamed confusion between state law and city ordinances for the verdict, Sabo said he is pleased with the decision.

"I knew it all along," Sabo said, exhaling audibly as he left the courtroom. "It's what I've been saying for the last six months."

Focusing largely on what responsibility, if any, the Turf has in separating diners from bar patrons, the two-day trial ended in confusion, McEvers said. Though the Turf was charged under state law, jurors also heard lengthy testimony about liquor license ordinances.

Small discrepancies between the two likely muddled the jury's rationale, she said.

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Following the verdict, McEvers asked East Central Judicial District John Irby to set aside the decision because the law was ignored. Irby denied the request.

Charges against Bison Turf were filed after police investigated a 21st birthday "power hour" Nov. 23 that left a North Dakota State University student in a coma for two weeks. The student recovered, but he and several of his friends were later charged with alcohol-related counts.

Prosecutors charged the Turf with allowing three minors inside the bar that night and two others during a similar party on Sept. 25.

If a bar sells food, as Bison Turf does, and wants to allow minors inside to eat, state law requires it to separate the drinking and dining areas, McEvers said.

Throughout the trial, a white board near the jury box displayed a floor plan of the Bison Turf, drawn by Detective Tammy Link. During her closing arguments, McEvers pointed out that Sabo himself testified that his bar is not separated.

In defense of Sabo, attorney Steve Mottinger told jurors not to let the trial turn into a referendum on irresponsible drinking.

"That's what the powers that be would have this case be about," he said.

Sabo was only following the guidelines city officials gave him in 1993, when he bought his license for $250,000, Mottinger said.

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Outside the courtroom, city attorney Gary Stewart said the trial raised an issue he's seen repeatedly as a member of Fargo's Liquor Control Committee. The city's ordinance doesn't elaborate on how separate rooms must be for minors to be allowed into a bar/restaurant without parents.

"It's a real tough call," Stewart said.

Wednesday's verdict could help Sabo keep his liquor license, which was approved only temporarily in June because of the pending trial. The City Commission denied a full renewal on the recommendation of Police Chief Chris Magnus.

Bison Turf, 1211 N. University Drive, holds one of the city's 22 AB liquor licenses, which allows bars to sell food and all types of alcohol without meeting a minimum food-to-alcohol ratio.

Following the verdict, Sabo said he has no plans to change Bison Turf policy.

"It wasn't broke," he said. "I don't want to fix it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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