A little past midnight, Hobex finished their first set. Frontman Greg Humphries said the band's first show at the Carrboro music venue De La Luz was going well. The venue is part of a combination art gallery and head shop called Temple Ball, on Main Street right across from the ArtsCenter and the Cat's Cradle. Temple Ball's owner is Rick Ramirez, a well-regarded figure in the local music scene. Ramirez owns a recording studio and small-run CD reproduction business used by many local bands. Over the past few months, De La Luz has hosted diverse acts such as Cool John Ferguson, Malt Swagger, the Tori Amos Tribute Show and a poetry slam. Last month, a group of Tibetan monks created a sand mandala there.
About 75 people were enjoying the Hobex show on Oct. 25. Audience members had paid a $10 cover to get in, and were then allowed to take cold cans of PBR from the bar. One of those in the audience was a plain-clothed officer of the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement agency (ALE) named Greg Hughes. He was working on a tip, communicated through the Carrboro police department, that the venue was violating state law by selling beer without the proper permits.
Charging a cover and then offering free beer counts as a sale under North Carolina law, according to Hughes. He said that Ramirez, who had no comment for this story, told an agent he was in the process of applying for a license from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to sell beer, but that he had not yet completed his application. According to the Carrboro police report, two officers had gone by Temple Ball a few weeks earlier to talk to Ramirez, "advising him specifically to clear his serving of alcohol to patrons with ALE, to avoid complicating the process of obtaining proper licensing with both the Town of Carrboro and the State of NC." Weeks after that conversation, those officers called the ALE and asked the agency to investigate, the report says.
"The band was actually pretty good," Hughes said. After going inside, paying the cover and getting a PBR, Hughes left the bar and went to talk to Carrboro police. He went back inside and hung back in the corner. Shortly thereafter, two more ALE agents and five Carrboro police officers came in to make the bust, Hughes said.
According to Humphries, their entry resembled an episode of COPS. "When they came in they chased the door guy down and pinned him on the floor on his stomach and handcuffed him," Humphries recalled, "which I thought was way overboard."
No weapons were drawn, and no weapons were found. But the cops did smell something. "Our officers that were there detected a fairly strong odor of marijuana," said Lt. Jim Phillips of the Carrboro Police Department. Hughes went into Ramirez's office to talk to him. In the office, Hughes said he smelled pot smoke and saw a pipe with residue. Eventually, he said, Ramirez handed over a plastic bag with a small amount of pot. "He said, 'That's my stash; you have my stash,' and he told the Carrboro officer [Keith] Webster, 'You can look.' "
They searched the office, and inside a backpack they found a bag "with just a hair over a pound of marijuana," Phillips said. ALE officers confiscated $462, money taken from the door of De La Luz.
Now the place was a crime scene. "They shut the place down and wouldn't let the employees or the band leave until they searched the premises," Humphries recalled, "which included the band's merchandise case and road cases." The search lasted over an hour. "I was scared for everybody," said Humphries, who still sounded shaken. "I just felt like the way that the ALE went about it was way out of proportion to the alleged crime."
After getting a warrant, the cops searched Ramirez's house and found much more, according to a police report: About three pounds of marijuana buds, plus hemp, hemp oil, seeds, dozens of containers with residue, small scales, a box of 53 marijuana pipes, plastic baggies and a five-foot-five-inch wood and brass pipe. Police also confiscated $470.04 from the house, money from the sale of drug paraphernalia, the report said.
Carrboro police charged Ramirez with possession with intent to sell or distribute, maintaining a place for the use or sale of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. ALE charged him with possession for sale of alcoholic beverages without an ABC permit and unauthorized possession of spirituous liquor. One of Ramirez's employees was charged with sale without an ABC permit. That comes to two felonies and three misdemeanors in all for Ramirez.
Now the future of Temple Ball and its adjacent venue, De La Luz, is uncertain. "There was no seizure of the business," Phillips said. "Generally speaking that's not something that routinely happens." But the shop door is bolted, despite an hours of operation sign that still hangs in the window, and the Web site announces that all scheduled shows for the rest of the year are cancelled "due to unforeseen circumstances."
Ramirez's future is also uncertain. After posting $3,000 bail, he was released. His case is now in the hands of the Orange-Chatham District Attorney's office. Jim Woodall, an assistant district attorney who handles drug cases, said Friday he had not yet received information on Ramirez's arrest. But while Carrboro police say this was an unusually large pot bust by their standards, the punishment might not be all that severe.
"Possession with intent to sell and deliver is actually the lowest class felony we have in North Carolina," Woodall said, "and depending on his record, he might be eligible for at most being put on probation." The alcohol charges are misdemeanors, and although the drug charges include two felonies, the amount of marijuana police say Ramirez possessed is well under the 10-pound threshold that qualifies for a mandatory minimum prison sentence. Prior convictions on possession could lead to a split sentence, with some time in jail followed by probation, Woodall said.
Mark Edwards, a criminal defense attorney in Durham who has worked on drug cases for 18 years, said Ramirez could get off without serving jail time if he's convicted. "The real key is what the D.A. is willing to do in terms of reducing or dismissing the charges so they can limit the damage as much as possible."
He says North Carolina is traditionally not very hard-line when it comes to pot. What matters to prosecutors, Edwards said, are the presence of guns and harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, none of which was found on the scene, according to the police report. Nor does Edwards expect the venue's cultural iconography--psychedelic art, jam band concerts, pipe sales, or the fact that "temple ball" is the name of a type of marijuana-- will make a difference to prosecutors. "Unless they think he's a big time dealer, generally I think you're going to find in most D.A.'s offices, unless it's in the hinterlands of the state, most of them realize that there are more serious crimes out there and more serious drugs out there."
Said Woodall, the assistant district attorney: "His personal feelings about whether marijuana should be legalized have nothing to do with the way the case is handled from our perspective."
Normally when a business applies for an alcohol license--either to sell beer or to sell liquor--they fill out a lengthy application with the ABC and pay an application fee. If the paperwork is in order, the business is issued a temporary permit and the ALE, the law enforcement arm of alcohol regulation, is called to investigate the premises. So if Ramirez had finished filing his application, ALE officers would have paid him a visit as a matter of routine.
"All I can say is, he's dealt with me fairly," Humphries said of Ramirez. "I'm very sorry that it happened. I hope he gets out of it OK."
The police report on the drug arrest sums up the incident: "Victim: Society. Injury: None."