Posted: December 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Morgantown — In the early morning hours of September 26th, 2011, an argument over a spilled drink in one of Morgantown’s private clubs turned deadly. Jeron Hawkins, an 18-year-old from Dunbar, West Virginia, shot and killed another young man who had followed him out of Club Karma on High Street to explain that he wasn’t the one who spilled the drink on Hawkins. As 28-year-old Lucas Lee moved towards Hawkins to explain, Hawkins shot him with a handgun.

Hawkins was convicted of the murder two weeks ago, but the verdict did not lay to rest the larger controversy over whether Morgantown’s bars and private clubs are open too late.  The city’s clubs are open most nights until 3 or 3:30 am, a later closing time than many other larger cities including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Morgantown officials say such late closing times, combined with the fact that underage drinking is common in the private clubs,  is responsible for a lot of the arrests and crime in the city.

Morgantown bars and clubs close much later than most major cities. This leads to increased drinking and violent crime.

“Most of the stuff that comes through the [Morgantown’s] court is related to alcohol,” says Brent Burton, the assistant attorney for the city of Morgantown.

A statistical map of criminal incidents around the city of Morgantown (from ucrime.com) reveals a large amount of alcohol-related arrests and citations in the downtown area, where most of the private clubs and bars are located. 

The prevalence of firearms in West Virginia and the fact that many bar-goers are allowed to bring concealed weapons inside adds to this combustible mix. As does the fact that underage students are routinely permitted access to private clubs, where many of them use fake IDs to buy drinks. At age 18, Jeron Hawkins was three years below the legal minimum age to carry a concealed weapon. Some students say people are rarely searched before they enter Morgantown’s private clubs and bars.

In response to the surge of violent incidents that occurs during the academic year in Morgantown, William Byrne, a Morgantown city councilor, recently suggested that the closing times for the city’s bars and private clubs be moved up. But that proposal went nowhere. Some critics say that may be because the city derives so much income in taxes on alcohol sales, and local bars and private clubs don’t want to lose the revenue from staying open late and serving underage students.

Burton, however, says the city does not have jurisdiction over the private clubs and bars. The state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration is the governing body for alcohol-serving venues in the West Virginia, he says. Some legal scholars at WVU, however, say the city does have jurisdiction but chooses not to use it.

What is true is that Morgantown city police aren’t allowed in private clubs unless there is an ABCA officer inside. “A private bar is like a private residence. A cop can’t walk in without a search warrant,” Burton says.

Ambulances are a common occurrence outside of Morgantown’s bars and private clubs.

The ABCA has its own set of rules for infractions. In the event of underage drinking inside a club, an ABCA officer can bring the suspect out side and a police officer will write a ticket, according to Burton.

Morgantown police do have authority in cases of public intoxication outside of the clubs and bars.

“If someone carries an open container [of alcohol] outside, the person carrying it can be cited as well as the bar that let him out,” Burton says.