By Tim Yovich
The bar owner says city has been harassing him since 2002.
WARREN — The owner of a closed Warren nightspot has filed a $700,000 lawsuit against the city, saying his bar was padlocked because of his race.
Lashawn Ziegler, who is black and owner of Benji Brown’s on North Park Avenue, which was boarded up by the city April 8, said in a lawsuit filed Monday in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court that he does not have equal protection under the law as guaranteed white residents.
The lawsuit alleges that “the city has consistently and without legal justification, selectively sought out Ziegler or Benji Brown’s patrons for parking and traffic law enforcement.”
The lawsuit alleges the city’s discrimination goes back to 2002 when Ziegler operated 77 Soul, a Youngstown Road bar. It was closed by the city in 2004 because it lacked fire walls and a sprinkler system.
Traci Timko Rose, an assistant city law director, said Tuesday she would reserve comment until after she read the complaint.
Ziegler asked the court to “enjoin the city from continuing its practice and pattern of misconduct and harassment” against him, adding that most of his patrons are black.
When the city closed Benji Brown’s, it also sought a permanent order to keep it closed as a nuisance. A hearing will be at 9 a.m. Tuesday before Judge John M. Stuard.
The bar was closed after an undercover investigation by the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Ohio Investigative Unit and Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Special Response Team.
They recovered 800 partially filled or full bottles of alcohol. Ziegler, 35, was charged with unlawful storage of alcohol.
Ziegler said at the time that the license to operate Benji Brown’s was in escrow because of his ongoing problems with the city and that he didn’t realize he couldn’t store alcohol.
In seeking to have the bar closed as a nuisance, the city said in its complaint that there were 57 calls for service at Benji Brown’s since Jan. 1, including a homicide in its parking lot, and 200 to 300 people go inside Fridays and Saturdays between 2 and 4:30 a.m.
State agents, the city says, have witnessed disturbances, including loud music, yelling, parking on the sidewalk, in private drives and on lawns and have heard gunshots from inside the bar.
Ziegler counters in his complaint that the occurrences at Benji Brown’s are no greater or less than similar city establishments.