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What Happened at Cactus Gallery on Saturday Night

“Loud music” was the trigger, says LAPD Capt. Bill Murphy, and serving alcohol without a permit is illegal.

It’s a mystery that will probably haunt Sandra Mastroianni forever: Why, after 84 art shows, would the Los Angeles Police Department give her citations for serving alcohol and hosting live music—something she has done many times before at Cactus Gallery, the store on Eagle Rock Boulevard she has owned for nearly eight years?

It’s also a question that owners of other art galleries across Northeast L.A. would be wise to take note of. Regardless of past practices, if they attract the attention of the LAPD by serving alcohol or allowing live music without proper permits, they could get fined.

Busting a Potluck Party

Mastroianni’s travails began on the night of Saturday, Dec. 8, when as many 10 plainclothes LAPD officers showed up at her gallery in four cars, effectively disrupting what she described as a “potluck party,” replete with "middle-aged folks, infants, children, food, drink, whole families."

One of the LAPD officers had a bulletproof vest, with the word “Police” emblazoned on the back, according to Mastroianni. She was cited for serving alcohol and hosting live music. Most of Mastroianni’s guests left soon after the police arrived, she said.

The tickets, given at 8:15 p.m.—a far from unholy time—have sent shock waves across the regional art community, not least because this is the last month that Mastroianni’s gallery will remain open. (Cactus Gallery is scheduled to close Dec. 24 because, as Mastroianni tells it, the landlord who owns the property reneged on a promise to sell her the building where the store is located. Instead, the landlord has sold the building to someone else, according to Mastroianni.)

“I think we were targeted on purpose,” Mastroianni told Patch on Tuesday in the midst of handling what she said was a flood of customers and outraged sympathizers who had rallied around her after hearing the news of the citations on Patch as well as her Facebook page.

“Are they trying to use me as an example?” she asked, adding: “Our neighbors love us and our landlord loves us, so we don’t think anybody complained.”

Was the Music Too Loud?

Capt. Bill Murphy, the commander of the LAPD Northeast Area Community Police Station, concedes that it wasn’t a complaint that led his officers to Mastroianni’s gallery.

In a Tuesday interview to Patch, Murphy explained that Sgt. Fernando Carrasco, who heads the Northeast station’s vice unit, was patrolling Eagle Rock on Saturday when he “heard noise that was really loud for the area.”

When Carrasco went into the gallery, he discovered that a live band was playing and that alcohol was being served, according to Murphy. “I don’t think they were selling it, but some people got upset and really vocal and the sergeant decided to call more units,” Murphy said.

Mastroianni had set up a portable wooden bar in her gallery and placed a jar on top of it for tips, as she has done on numerous occasions in the past. She did not, however, sell any alcohol, she emphasized, even though that’s what she has been cited for.

Mastroianni denies the music at her gallery was noisy. “It was not loud,” she said. “It was a very sad and somber night.” The band, consisting of three women and a man, “maybe played two and a half songs” when the vice squad arrived, she said.

If anything, Spoke(n) Art, a group of regional bicycle riders who tour Northeast L.A.’s art galleries on the second Saturday of each month, and who dropped into Cactus that night, made a lot more noise. “They ride with a boom box and their music was louder than ours,” Mastroianni said.

The gallery owner does admit, however, that the people in her store got upset when the undercover officers arrived. “They were telling them, What are you doing? This is the [store’s] last night. There are friends and family here. Go fight crime.”

No Permit, No Alcohol Allowed

“The point that needs to be known is that an art gallery or any other business—a laundromat, tire shop, whatever—can’t just bring in wine and cheese and serve it,” Murphy said. “You have to get a permit for that—and that didn’t happen.”

Serving alcohol in a party atmosphere at art galleries has been what Murphy referred to as “a big deal” not in Eagle Rock but in nearby Silver Lake. Many galleries in the neighborhood would typically be open to “hundreds of people [with] alcohol flowing,” he said.

“You can’t be an art gallery that decides to serve alcohol,” Murphy said. “If you want to do that, there’s a way to do it—request a one-time event permit.” Besides a one-time permit to serve alcohol, which costs about $25 to $50, permits are also issued for one-time entertainment of the kind underway at Cactus Gallery on Saturday night, the captain said.

What if …

Asked if the vice officers at Cactus Gallery might have been lenient if the partygoers inside hadn’t kicked up a fuss, Murphy said the LAPD “couldn’t look the other way”—not just because a business “can’t dispense alcohol without a permit” but because of potential liability for the LAPD.

“If somebody [from the Cactus Gallery party] got drunk and got into a car accident, we’d be sued in a heartbeat if we didn’t cite them,” Murphy said.

Asked why Cactus’s Mastroianni was cited when she’s hardly the only art gallery owner in Northeast L.A. who has served alcohol to customers and guests, Murphy said: “It really boils down to what we know. In this particular case, there was a live band that brought attention to itself.”

Getting Permits

Getting a permit from Alcohol Beverage Control, the state agency that oversees the licensing and law enforcement of alcohol sales, isn’t difficult, Murphy said, adding that a one-day ABC permit is “basically between the ABC, the captain, and you.” He offered the example of Occidental College, whose alumni host an annual event where alcohol is served, and who get the necessary permit for doing so.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Murphy said. “We like to be accommodating, but we can’t let the issue get out of control.”

NELA Vice Sweep?

The Northeast station’s vice squad is constantly checking on the roughly 360 bars and restaurants that have ABC licenses, Murphy said, adding that each establishment requires an inspection every two years.

The Northeast station captain denied that his vice squad has been aggressively targeting bars and restaurants in parts of Northeast L.A. lately, as a source who works closely with several targeted bars in Highland Park and Cypress Park told Patch on condition of anonymity.

While Carrasco has been on the job regularly as the head of the Northeast station’s vice unit for only the past year or so, the sergeant has plenty of experience working the vice beat, Murphy said. “It’s not that they’re doing anything different,” the captain said of the vice unit.

Community Meeting Next Week

Meanwhile, Murphy is planning to call a meeting sometime next week to explain the process whereby local businesses can apply for a one-time permit to serve alcohol on their premises.

The planned meeting followed talks that Murphy said he had with the office of Council member José Huizar Tuesday regarding Mastroianni’s citations.

Correction: The LAPD officers who arrived at Cactus Gallery were not "undercover," as an earlier version of this article said. They were plainclothes officers who weren't wearing uniforms.

nonoise December 16, 2012 at 06:47 AM
Kelly, there are barking dog laws if the dog barks more than 30 minutes at one time. The dog is board. It is not the dog's fault. The owner needs to either get a second dog to play with the dog or your friend could buy the dog some dog toys and/or bones. Maybe your friend could offer the neighbor to take the dog for a walk or to the dog park. The dog is lonely and board.
Lightnapper December 16, 2012 at 05:29 PM
Actually, it makes perfect sense, and it often does work that way. I walked the walk. I don't just talk the talk. Infractions and misdemeanors are often "forgiven" by LE-- excluding domestic violence, a state mandate. Even outstanding Warrants are sometimes ignored depending on the exigent circumstances. It's a decision made at a particular officer's discretion during an individual encounter, and may depend on the "calls for service" volume. Arresting for a felony offense is a completely different matter. Generally speaking, nothing's written in stone, like the Ten Commandments, when working the street. As they say, there's the Academy Way, and then there's the Street Way. Which do you think is adopted by P-Dogs? It's a fluid environment which is often dangerous and unpredictable. Once again simply put-- "Letter of the Law vs. Spirit of the Law." Having a little "wiggle room" is how LE "wins the hearts and minds" of the citizens it serves. And, unfortunately-- many LE and other "connected," as well as some just plain lucky folks, have walked/taxied/been ferried by comrades away from a potential DUI arrest. It happens regularly. And, for God's sake, serving a glass of wine at an art gallery with 1 acoustic guitar without a 1 day "permit" is nowhere near the severity of a potentially deadly DUI. "What-ifs" don't count! Thank God you're not a Copper. That badge would be so heavy, you couldn't lift your Sam Browne off the Locker Room bench. "You have a nice, quiet Sunday, ma'am."
kelly thompson December 16, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Thank you for those insightful and wise words lightnapper. I really hope those who would be so ridged and lacking compassion can learn from your words. Like I said before they will be better people for it.
kelly thompson December 16, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Great advice on the dog nonoise. I am however sad that you don't have as much compassion in the gallery's citation as a potential dog owner citation and are willing to give second chances to some but not others. You in fact are going against your own ridged rules of no forgiveness no warnings in this case. Neither is a felony but the small business that is vital to many of us in the community should get the book thrown at her without a warning. While the dog owner that is a menus to the whole neighborhood should be shown compassion. Hum...
kelly thompson December 16, 2012 at 07:00 PM
I can tell you that my friend had his two babies in the gallery with out complaining about the noise. He is a stickler for noise even without the family there and would not have hesitated to let Sandra know to turn it down. Or for that matter let his twin babies in if it were two noisy. He is photographed with the babies and had no complaints of the noise. I think the whole police action on the art walks was prearranged and that the account of a random stumble upon is a lie. They also were out in force on York among the other galleries, it was a planned inspection and raid. I truly believe that.

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