HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Federal Rave Case Ends With A Whimper
Pubdate: Thu, 02 Aug 2001
Source: Times-Picayune, The (LA)
Copyright: 2001 The Times-Picayune
Author: Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune


Party Booker's Firm Gets Fine, Probation

The federal narcotics case emerged from the laser-light, techno-beat-driven 
world of raves, where writhing bodies jam the dance floor for hours and the 
crowd doesn't disperse until dawn. But the high-profile prosecution in New 
Orleans ended Wednesday in a sterile courtroom that attracted two 
spectators and lasted minutes.

At a swift and predictable sentencing hearing, the company that leased the 
State Palace Theater for raves was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine for 
violating the so-called "crack house" law. The company also promised to 
keep glow sticks and pacifiers out of the theater's raves. Such 
accessories, prosecutors said, often double as drug paraphernalia for 
dancers high on Ecstasy, a pill that provides a euphoric rush that 
heightens the senses.

U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous accepted the plea bargain struck in 
June between the U.S. attorney's office and the corporation Barbecue Inc. 
of New Orleans, which leased the Canal Street theater for raves between 
1997 and 2000. He sentenced Barbecue, whose president is theater manager 
Robert Brunet of Metairie, to five years probation in addition to the fine.

The corporation's guilty plea prevented a trial and resolved the criminal 
case against Brunet and his brother Brian Brunet, who lives in Florida. 
Rave promoter Donnie Estopinal, who also was indicted, was not a part of 
the plea bargain. The three men were accused of purposely maintaining a 
place for illicit drug trafficking under a 1980s law aimed at shutting down 
crack houses.

Charges against the three men were dropped in March after their attorneys 
signaled they would fight. But Robert Brunet, who said he was weary from 
the expense and pressure of the case, agreed to have his corporation plead 
guilty and avoid trial.

The New Orleans case concerning raves and Ecstasy was an unprecedented move 
by the government when it began in January and made national headlines. No 
prosecutor had ever applied the federal law created to stop the urban crack 
cocaine nightmare to music promoters. But those involved in the case say 
that, except for a similar case in Panama City, Fla., use of the law 
against organizers of big, electronic-music parties has not spread across 
the country, as then-U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan predicted when his office 
secured the indictments.

"They were able to get a guilty plea and claim victory, but at the end of 
the day, no one's going to prison," said Graham Boyd of the American Civil 
Liberties Union, which supported the local promoters.

Whether the New Orleans case shows that authorities can use the crack house 
law to target other raves remains to be seen, Boyd said.

"We'll have to wait for the next case," he said.

City ordinances and zoning laws continue to be the legal tool of choice for 
communities that want to close down rave parties in the name of curbing 
Ecstasy, which has increased in use across the country.

"If you called 100 criminal defense lawyers, read that outcome to them, 
probably 95 would say the government didn't think it had a snowball's 
chance in hell at trial," said lawyer Clyde Taylor of Tallahassee, Fla., 
who represents another set of brothers in the entertainment business 
recently indicted under the crack house law. "How much hype and talk they 
made and, lo and behold, they come back with" a plea bargain.

But acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the case and its outcome made the 
State Palace Theater a safer place. The ban on items such as glow sticks 
and dust masks is a step toward reducing drug overdoses and Ecstasy sales, 
he said after the plea bargain was announced.

Investigators said the New Orleans parties produced hundreds of overdoses, 
and that DEA agents reported witnessing a lurid scene inside the cavernous 
theater where Ecstasy and LSD were openly sold and used.

Along with the ACLU, however, rave fans and electronic-music promoters saw 
the New Orleans case as a misdirected skirmish in the war on drugs. The 
young people who flock to the marathon dance parties cried discrimination 
and mocked what they considered law enforcement's overly simplistic view of 
the rave subculture.

Still, pressure against rave promoters remains. Last month in Florida, a 
federal grand jury charged two brothers with turning a Panama City hot spot 
into a way station for marijuana, cocaine and Ketamine, an animal sedative 
that's also hit the club circuit. Club La Vela, a sprawling nightclub with 
35 bar stations and an indoor pool, handles 5,000 patrons on a weekend 
night. If they win a conviction under the crack house law, prosecutors plan 
to confiscate the property.

While he is unconvinced the New Orleans case is any kind of harbinger for 
raves, Taylor said the novel use of the crack house law is not to be ignored.

"An argument can be made that hysteria has taken hold and the law is being 
stretched," he said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Tallahassee said she 
couldn't discuss the pending case. A trial is scheduled for November.

In New Orleans, the State Palace Theater remains a home to occasional 
full-blown raves that attract thousands. But since the indictments, a 
phalanx of security guards searches bags and demands identification. 
Everyone must be at least 18 to enter.
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