The mimosa verdict is in, and it is guilty.
Columbus Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski this morning found bridal shop owner and West Point, Ga., city councilwoman Judy Wilkinson guilty of violating a city ordinance by serving champagne and orange juice cocktails to customers at her Veterans Parkway business Formal Elegance. Cielinski gave her a penalty of 30 days’ probation.
Wilkinson immediately filed an appeal to state court. Her attorney, Ben Wilcox, maintains the city code she's accused of violating is unconstitutional because it says no one in a business may possess alcohol without an alcohol license. "Prohibition went away a long time ago," he said, referring to the country’s attempt to ban alcohol altogether.
Wilkinson was arrested Saturday after an undercover police officer pretending he was shopping for a tuxedo saw mimosas being served at her the 6002 Veterans Parkway bridal shop.
In court today, Sgt. William Gasaway of the police department’s special operations unit testified that police had received at least four complaints about Wilkinson serving alcohol. When Wilcox asked who complained, the sergeant said at least one complaint came from a former employee of the shop, another came from a worker’s relative, and a third came from the mother of a 17-year-old who claimed her daughter was offered a mimosa at Formal Elegance, even though she was too young to drink legally.
Wilcox also asked Gasaway if police had pursued similar cases since Columbus Council passed a more restrictive alcohol law in March. Gasaway said he could think of two other cases, both of which resulted in guilty verdicts.
Asked if police still were getting similar complaints, Gasaway said: “I’ve been receiving a whole lot more since this has hit the newspaper.”
Accounts of Wilkinson’s arrest have spread through the Internet, provoking outrage from some readers who remarked that beauty salons, jewelry shops and other businesses routinely serve customers wine or champagne. Assistant City Attorney Jaimie DeLoach said those businesses also would be in violation of the city law and subject to the same treatment Wilkinson got.
Wilkinson said after today’s hearing that when Gasaway saw mimosas being served Saturday, he summoned five other officers who came rushing into her shop with badges raised, shouting “Columbus police!” and demanding she surrender the champagne. At the time she was showing customers new wedding gowns, she said. She was handcuffed, booked into the county jail, and detained for about two hours, she said.
In court today she held up one of the plastic glasses in which mimosas were served, estimating it to be about 2 ounces. “My mouthwash has more alcohol than my mimosa,” she remarked after the hearing.
According to DeLoach, Wilkinson, 41, broke two laws, a city ordinance and a state statute.
The city ordinance says: “It shall be unlawful for any person, corporation, partnership or other legal entity to possess, sell, or possess for the purpose of sale at any business location or transport for the purpose of sale, any alcoholic beverage where the person does not have a valid alcoholic beverage license.”
The state law says no one may “manufacture, distribute, sell, handle, or possess for sale, or otherwise deal in alcoholic beverages” without first obtaining “all applicable licenses required by this title.” It further states that once a license is obtained, the business owner “shall display the license prominently at all times on the premises.”
Cielinski sent the state charge to state court. This morning’s hearing involved only the city ordinance case.
Wilkinson maintains a clerk at the Columbus Government Center business licensing office told her she didn’t need a liquor license to serve alcohol in her shop. Her case for two days was delayed because her attorney wanted the city to supply a videotape of Wilkinson buying the license. He said the video would show Wilkinson twice went to the Government Center to ensure she had properly filled out her application, and she was honest about her intention to serve alcohol in her store.
Cielinski said during court this morning that he viewed the videotape, and it was too indistinct to provide any clear evidence in the case.
Wilkinson said that had she been accurately informed of the law, she would never have offered customers alcohol: “I just wouldn’t have served it.”
After court today, she said she would begin offering customers “faux-mosas” with nonalcoholic champagne.
Before finding her guilty, Cielinski said he had to decide the case based on the facts and the law. “Whether I agree with the ordinance or not is not my job,” he said.
Among the questions Wilcox asked Gasaway today was whether he himself would be in violation of the law if he invited the sergeant to his law office and served him a beer. Gasaway said yes.
Wilcox maintains that’s too broad a prohibition, and makes it illegal for anyone running a home-based business to serve guests alcohol or even possess it.
DeLoach said city leaders made the law more restrictive this year because authorities found businesses were circumventing the alcohol licensing law simply by not buying licenses. Enforcement had been based primarily on inspecting businesses with alcohol licenses, while unlicensed businesses were serving alcohol, she said. So city officials wanted a law expressly prohibiting even having alcohol in a business that has no alcohol license.
Wilcox and Wilkinson said they will challenge the law in their appeal. Wilkinson she paid $700 today for an appeal bond, though she expects to get most of that back.
She said media coverage of her arrest has drawn supporters to her cause. “My phone I can’t even keep charged,” because of all the calls, she said.
DeLoach said Wilkinson’s getting 30 days’ probation means that if she violates the law within a month, she may be jailed until a probation hearing is held.
Though Wilkinson’s hearing twice was delayed as Wilcox sought the city’s videotape, Cielinski heard some testimony in an initial hearing on Monday.
Gasaway testified then that during his undercover operation Saturday, he heard Wilkinson ask clients if they wanted a mimosa. Gasaway said he also heard Wilkinson ask whether anyone younger than 21 was among the customers. Wilkinson did not provide alcohol to any underage customer, the sergeant said.
One of Wilkinson’s employees then gave out plastic champagne cups filled with an orange beverage that smelled like alcohol, Gasaway told Cielinski. The sergeant said he then identified himself as a police officer and asked Wilkinson whether she had a license to serve alcohol. She said she did not, so other members of the undercover unit came in, confiscated 16 bottles of champagne, and arrested Wilkinson, Gasaway said.
Wilkinson has filed a complaint with Capt. Bill Turner, who heads the police department’s special operations unit.