After a year of all but ignoring the state's smoking ban, Peoria police appear to be assuming a much more aggressive stance toward bars where people still puff. More specifically, police are focused solely on bar owners and bartenders, rather than the smokers themselves.

After a year of all but ignoring the state's smoking ban, Peoria police appear to be assuming a much more aggressive stance toward bars where people still puff.


More specifically, police are focused solely on bar owners and bartenders, rather than the smokers themselves. While the Smoke Free Illinois Act purportedly prohibits the public at large from smoking in all types of businesses and operators of those establishments from allowing it, police purposefully aren't citing smokers. Only tavern operators are being handed violations for the alleged actions of patrons.


That's because the city isn't actually enforcing the state statute, but is instead attempting to regulate smoking through a "catch-all" provision of the municipal liquor ordinance, an unofficial policy unveiled last year but apparently not put into action until the last couple of months.


About 10 bar owners and bartenders have been cited since then for allowing "illegal acts on premises" - a violation spelled out in a single paragraph under Section 28 of the municipal liquor code that casts a wide net over the responsibility of tavern owners and employees to assure laws are followed on the property.


"It's kind of a catch-all," said Peoria Police Officer Scott Jordan, the liquor investigator for the city. "(Citations) are not written for smoking, they're written for illegal activity on premises."


The city adopted the approach after the Illinois Department of Public Health failed to deliver an acceptable set of regulations for the Smoke Free Illinois Act to the Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules in January 2008, after the ban took effect.


JCAR's rejection ultimately left municipalities and local law enforcement agencies to fend for themselves in deciding how to enforce the fledgeling statute, leading to challenges to the law and the way it was being handled in circuit courts around the state.


Those rounds of legal action eventually forced lawmakers in Springfield to reconsider some of the law's peculiar language, and an amendment to the state ban that conceivably fixes its most glaring shortcomings was signed into law last month.


The amendment in no uncertain terms calls for smoking violations to be handled through administrative hearings hosted by the state health department, but also requires rules for those proceedings to be approved by JCAR. A new set of regulations has not yet been proposed to that body.


Once that happens and protocol for processing violations has been established, city police will follow those procedures, Jordan said, and cite smokers as well as owners. Until then, the enforcement approach through the liquor code will continue.


"I don't know any way to go about it at this point until we get something from the Illinois Department of Public Health," said Jordan, stressing that a vast majority of the bars in the city are complying. "I wish the state would have come up with a better way to do this, but it didn't and we have to do something about it."


The recent round of enforcement efforts was initiated by complaints of bar owners who told police they were losing business to competitors who continued to allow smoking in their establishments.


Those who have been ticketed potentially face two punishments: a fine from the municipal ordinance violation and a hearing before the city's liquor commission where sanctions could be imposed.


"Ultimately, a bar could lose its license if it refuses to follow the law," said city attorney Randy Ray, who noted that no one recently cited for allowing smoking was in immediate danger of losing a license for it. "You can not have a liquor license and not enforce the smoking ban."


One of the bar owners recently cited was Dixie Behm, who operates Dixie's Dungeon in Peoria. She said patrol officers have been checking her bar regularly since the beginning of the year, usually late on a Saturday night, and issued smoking-related violations three times.


"They just bombarded us like four weekends in a row," she said. "The time before last when they gave me a ticket, there wasn't even anybody smoking. They said they smelled smoke. . . . It's crazy."


Matt Buedel can be reached at (309) 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com.