Panama City Beach businesses drop federal lawsuit over Spring Break laws

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP)-- Three popular spring break businesses that took Panama City Beach to court have dropped their federal lawsuit.

"The wheels of justice don't always go as quickly as a lot of people working together in a reasonable and cooperative atmosphere and I think that's what my clients are looking to achieve," said Luke Lirot, the attorney representing the businesses.

Last October, Club La Vela, Spinnaker and Harpoon Harry's sued Panama City Beach over new laws aimed at cracking down on the out of control partying during spring break. About a month ago, a federal judge denied an injunction which would have temporarily suspended the laws the city passed.

"The city council can see for itself the impact is devastating," said Lirot. "They're expecting everybody there in the community to realize what needs to be done and take another look at these ordinances."

The businesses claim their business is down by as much as 90% this year.

"They've scared away tens of thousands of people that would've behaved properly and are simply not there to spend their money," said Lirot.

The most significant of the new laws bans drinking on the beach and forces clubs and bars to stop serving alcohol two hours earlier.

"The things that we did were to safeguard the citizens and the visitors that come to the beach and we've always been a family vacation location," said Panama City Beach City Manager, Mario Gisbert.

The group claimed the laws were racially motivated and violated freedom of speech rights. On Tuesday, the businesses dropped the lawsuit, saying instead of fighting, they want to focus on surviving spring break. Panama City Beach City Manager Mario Gisbert says even if we do lose business in march, we'll make up for it.

"We keep on focusing on five weeks out of the year," said Gisbert. "The year has 52 weeks. We have an excellent family business all year long."

----UPDATE 8:42 P.M.------------------------------------------------------------------

A federal lawsuit accusing Panama City Beach of violating the Civil Rights Act and First Amendment has been dropped by the beach businesses who filed it back in October.

In a release from an attorney representing Club LaVela, Spinnaker and Harpoon Harry's, the businesses said it would be "much better at this point to fight together with the City to try and survive the impact of this legislation, rather than fight the legislation itself, sine the damage will be tangible and enormous, not only for the Clubs, but for the lodging industry and all for he support businesses that benefit from a heavily attended Spring Break."

The release from Attorney Luke Lirot says "The Clubs regretted that the filing of the lawsuit was necessary in the first place, but efforts to negotiate with Panama City Beach proved unsuccessful and the Clubs believed that filing the lawsuit was the best away of vindicating their civil rights and what they perceived as a "taking" of their business properties, as well as vindicating the rights of their patrons."

The release continues: "Since negotiations to resolve the damages caused by the "Spring Break" ordinances proved unsuccessful, the Clubs sought emergency relief from the Federal Court. Initially, the Clubs saw that the lawsuit succeeded on several counts as the case initially progressed, in that it prompted the City to adopt several amendatory ordinances which now make the "Special Events Ordiance" less unconstitutional and which clarified important aspects of several other ordinances."

"Unfortunately, the Federal Court did not grant any emergency relief when the Court denied the Clubs a Preliminary Injunction on January 28, 2016. The Clubs, seeing up to a 90% decrease in their business as a result of the City's "Spring Break" legislation, have determined that further pursuit of the Federal litigation would be futile and would not provide relief in time to salvage a successful Spring Break 2016."

Lirot says instead of fighting, now his clients are just in survival mode.

"The Clubs decided that any further inflammation of the racial issues, the financial issues, and the operational issues that seem to have the entire community in an uproar simply needed to be avoided, and everyone needs to live and work together in an effort to halt the wounds caused by this controversy, as well as working together to find ways to deal with the obvious economic devastation that the up to 90% degrease in business patrons will have as a ripple effect throughout the City and the greater Bay County area," Lirot stated in the release.

The new "Spring Break" laws were adopted in late 2015 following a rash of violence and negative publicity during Spring Break. Sean Hannity, of Fox News, did an expose on Panama City Beach which brought a lot of negative media attention to the area.

The tipping point came right after a shooting at a house party on Thomas Drive that injured seven people on March 28, 2015. The shooter in that incident, David Daniels, was convicted by a jury in January of seven counts of attempted murder. He's scheduled to be sentenced March 18th.

The new laws include an earlier closing time (2am compared to 4am) for businesses that serve alcohol during March, no drinking alcohol on the beach during March, an ID being required to drink alcohol on the beach all other months of the year, a ban on overnight scooter rentals, a scaling back of scooter inventory at rental businesses, new insurance requirements for scooter rental businesses as well as a mandate for safety vests for all riders, a ban parking in parking lots of closed businesses, ban on parking on Front Beach Road corridor after dark, ban on consuming alcohol in commercial business parking lots during March and a special event permitting process requiring EMS and security based on the size of the special event.

Bay County also passed two additional laws, one banning anyone under 21 (except military personnel) from entering any establishment that serves alcohol after midnight and a law where deputies could identify something like a house party as a "public nuisance" and have it shut down immediately.

The businesses claimed in their filing of the lawsuit on October 29, 2015, the the news laws violated the Civil Rights Acts because the laws were racially motivated. The businesses also claimed the new laws violated their free speech rights.

Lirot says his clients "sincerely hope that their efforts will be seen as simply their patriotic effort to protect the rights of the individuals against the unreasonable acts of the government. They hope that the City, now seeing the unmistakable negative impact caused by the "Spring Break" legislation, will itself take remedial action, eliminate this restrictive and damaging legislation, and do everything possible to try and bring back Spring Break this precious resource and huge benefit to the community."

The lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice meaning it could be refiled in the future. Both sides will pay their own legal fees.