Stop dancing, in the name of the law

On March 17, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors banned lap dances anywhere in the unincorporated county—outside of homes, hotel rooms and licensed “adult live theaters.”

The ordinance is obviously aimed at The Embers, a strip club—um, make that “bikini bar”—that the county has been trying to shut down for 10 years now. That’s a long, sad story on its own, but suffice it to say we have that one pissing match on Auburn Boulevard to thank for the “physical contact dance ordinance.” If you think the title sounds ridiculous, you should read the ordinance.

“They’re going after a fly with a shotgun,” says George Mull, an attorney representing The Embers, arguing that the new law is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.

He’s probably right. Consider that while the new law is called the “physical contact dance ordinance,” it actually says nothing about lap dances. On the other hand, it does prohibit a whole host of pretty routine activities that you’d find going on in any number of bars, theaters, clubs and other venues where people are just trying to have a good time with all their clothes on.

The new law literally applies to any “entertainment business having on its premises entertainers dancing or performing other related forms of entertainment wherein performances are being offered by entertainers for the viewing of patrons.”

If you’re asking just what is meant by “dancing or performing other related forms of entertainment,” Mull says, “Exactly.”

For example, does a rock band dance or perform “related forms of entertainment”? Arguably, they do. How about a deejay at a nightclub? Ever seen a comedian dance as part of their act? Ever been to a play? West Side Story, anyone? How about the Sacramento Ballet?

“I defy you to find any venue that it doesn’t apply to,” says Mull.

Any business that meets the criteria above has to follow a whole list of rules, including these: There must be a stage area no less than 100 square feet; entertainers have to keep at least 6 feet away from patrons, and vice versa; customers can’t come within 6 feet of the stage; there have to be separate dressing rooms for male and female entertainers; there is to be no physical contact between the entertainers and patrons; tips have to be put in a receptacle at least 6 feet away from the entertainer or the stage.

Imagine a band is playing and someone jumps up onto the stage—that’s a violation. A nightclub doesn’t have separate dressing rooms for male and female band members—that’s a misdemeanor. Slip a dollar into the piano man’s tip jar—you’re going to jail.

This, of course, all sounds a bit crazy. So Bites called up Deputy County Counsel John Reed to get some reassurances that the county had not really just effectively banned live music. Bites asked Reed to clarify exactly what kinds of businesses the ordinance applies to.

“It applies to what it says it applies to.”

Does it apply to, say, The Boardwalk?

“I haven’t been to The Boardwalk. I don’t know what goes on there.”

Is the ordinance intended to apply to live-music venues?

“I don’t believe so, no.”

Where in the ordinance does it say that it doesn’t apply to live-music venues?

“It says what it applies to.”

Who wrote this ordinance?

“I can’t comment on that.”

What? Really? Why?

“That involves attorney-client privilege.”

OK. Is this law absurdly overbroad and vague and unconstitutional?

“I think in the event that the ordinance is ever challenged, a judge would have to make that decision.”

Not so reassuring.