The warrants for the arrests of Benard Theora and Alvin Boyd Turner readliterallylike a grocery list. Over three months this year, Turner, who owns the Community Grocery in East Durham, and Theora, a clerk at the Holloway Street Food Mart, allegedly purchased more than $8,000 of goods from undercover police, who had told the suspects the items were stolen.

The total haul included dozens of packages of Red Bull, cigarettes, baby formula, razor blades, energy drinks and other goods, according to police documents.

Both men face multiple criminal charges, including receiving stolen property and organized retail theft. The arrests could prompt the state Alcohol and Beverage Commission to punish the stores’ owners. That’s traditionally meant fines or a temporary suspension of the state-issued permit to sell alcoholic beverages.

But local watchdogs have long complained that the ABC’s and Durham’s disciplinary processes lack teeth. As a result, they say, problem retailers, and the criminal activity that they attract, persist.

Now the City of Durham says it will more aggressively review alcohol retailers such as delis, big-box groceries and convenience stories. Officials say they will consult with local police and residents to evaluate the records of each retailer as its required city-issued license comes up for renewal. There are also plans to establish a process for hearing revocation appeals. City Finance Director David Boyd says the changes will be finalized before May, when most of the city’s retailers will apply for their privilege license renewal.

“What we’ve concluded is that ABC does not have a history of taking the state-issued permits away,” Boyd says. “If we don’t believe that ABC has taken appropriate action or been strong enough with what sanctions have been taken against the retailer, we can use our process.”

Wanda Boone, head of Durham Together for Resilient Youth and a longtime watchdog of local alcohol retailers, applauds the new move. But she wants more details. “What I’m concerned about is the exact cause for a denial,” she says. “What would have to happen, what would the city need to see before revoking a license? Defining that would seem like the next step.”

More than 200 Durham businesses hold state permits to sell fortified beer and malt beverages or wine. State law mandates that retailers must also obtain a business privilege license from the city, which must be renewed.

According to ABC records, the city’s review of alcohol retailers has been less than robust. As the INDY reported in July, the city’s finance department has processed 576 new privilege license applications since 2002. Durham City Council, which has final approval of the applications, okayed all of them. The city has never revoked an active privilege license, preferring to rely on the state to discipline operators, even though neighbors complained the stores attracted criminal activity.

This is a statewide problem. No municipality has revoked a privilege license in almost a decade, Renee Cowick, an attorney with the state ABC, said earlier this year. “I’m not aware of any municipalities that have,” said Cowick. “Not in my nine years here.”

A wrinkle in state alcohol law may explain why. A city can revoke a privilege license. But state law provides that the owner be given a chance to appeal the decision in a quasi-judicial hearing before the municipality’s governing body, such as a city council. Until recently, Durham hadn’t established process for doing so.

If the city revokes a license because of criminal activity, it has to prove that the charges resulted in a conviction, not just an arrest. Municipalities are further hamstrung because state law allows them to use convictions only from the 12 months prior to the revocation.

Boyd acknowledges that Durham officials “had not wanted to go down that path.” But now that they are, Boyd says the city will not be developing a list of criteria for revocation, but instead will evaluate the “totality of circumstances.”

“How do you value one thing over the other?” Boyd says. “What’s important now is that we have an opportunity for ongoing review of these retailers, and we’re taking advantage of it.”

City Councilman Steve Schewel applauds these new developments. “The reason you make it more of an administrative review is so that we, as the city council, can impartially decide whether the license should be denied,” Schewel says.

Durham City Attorney Patrick Baker says by not establishing a precise list of offenses and penalties, the city retains flexibility. “There may come a situation where that policy would tell us to do one thing, but our eyes and ears tell us to do another,” Baker says. “If the goal is to keep retailers in compliance, we want a full range of options.”

If a retailer’s recent history of state liquor law violations factors into that evaluation, the owners of the Holloway Street Food Mart have a lot to account for. Owner Peter Kagwanja was issued licenses to sell beer, wine and other fortified beverages in 1993. In addition to the recent violation of ABC law, which occurred last month, the mini-mart was fined $2,000 in 2008.

In the latter case, Theora was working at the store when Durham police officers reported observing two men selling crack cocaine inside, according to Commission records. It’s a violation of ABC guidelines to knowingly or otherwise allow narcotic sales on the property of a retailer that holds a state-issued permit to sell alcohol.

Theora initially denied the allegations, according to Commission records. No criminal charges were filed against him. Kagwanja objected to the allegation before settling with the Commission two years later. He agreed to a 30-day suspension of his alcohol sales permits and a $2,000 fine.

Kagwanja’s business license comes up for renewal next May. The city could consider his history in whether to renew the license.

Wanda Boone says establishing a list of criteria for revoking licenses is ideal. “The state already has a process for determining if an alcohol outlet will cause harm, she says. “Those rules and standards would seem like a good place to start.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Trouble in store.”