IJ Tangos with Arizona Dance Ban

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 8, 2007

Tempe, Ariz.—All Dale Bell and his son, Spencer, want to do is run their popular restaurant. But government busybodies from Pinal County are trying yet another scheme to harass the father-and-son business partners. Pinal County’s latest demand? Dale and Spencer must act as the county’s “dance police” stopping customers whenever they dare do-si-do outside to the restaurant’s live country and western music.

San Tan Flat is a popular steakhouse in Pinal County, Ariz. (located between Phoenix and Tucson), that provides enjoyable live country music each weekend. Customers often dance to the music under the stars. County officials, however, are now saying that if a customer dances, that instantly transforms the restaurant into a “dance hall,” and dancing outdoors in a “dance hall” is strictly forbidden. The county is employing an obscure zoning ordinance to fine Bell as much as $200,000 a year unless he stops every two-step and waltz.

“Spencer and I don’t make a dime off of dancing, yet Pinal County is telling us that we have to be the agents of the government, forcing our customers to stop any dancing,” said Dale Bell. “I resent that very much. I am not the dance police. If my customers want to dance, they should be allowed to dance. There shouldn’t be a law against that.”

On March 8, 2007, Dale joined with the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter (IJ-AZ) in filing papers supporting his appeal of a Pinal County Hearing Officer’s January ruling, imposing severe fines against Dale individually for refusing to act as the dance police. IJ-AZ, a public interest law firm with a history of defeating such senseless government regulation, will fight for Bell’s economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living free from excessive government interference.

“Saying people can sway to music outdoors, but not move their feet because that would be dancing, is rightfully making Pinal County a national laughingstock,” said Jennifer Perkins, an IJ-AZ staff attorney. “Unfortunately, this is typical of the kind of petty harassment entrepreneurs nationwide must endure at the hands of government just to pursue an honest enterprise. It is wrong and the Institute for Justice seeks to stop it in Pinal County and anywhere small businesses are menaced by bureaucrats overstepping their authority.”

Shortly after San Tan Flat’s grand opening in 2005, the Pinal County officials began imposing themselves on Dale. They forced him to reduce the number of entrances San Tan Flat had off the highway from four to one, restricted him from advertising with more than one sign and one government agent even made a special trip to scrutinize the restaurant’s firewood. Despite numerous attempts, the county couldn’t find fault with San Tan Flat.

Government agents then started showing up three times a night to see if the steakhouse violated the county’s noise ordinance—amended after the steakhouse’s opening to become one of the most restrictive in Arizona. Despite months of constant monitoring, San Tan Flat never once violated the noise regulation.

The county’s latest effort, however, is by far the most creative and potentially costly. The fines for not imposing a dance ban in his restaurant’s courtyard are steep enough to shut him down, or any other small business owner for that matter.

“This business is my dream and my son’s dream,” said Dale. “It is our American Dream. But Pinal County seems bent on making our entrepreneurial venture a nightmare. And that’s wrong. It is time the officials of Pinal County recognize that and stop this harassment.”

The county’s prohibition on dancing is not only hard to believe, it is unconstitutional. Dale has a constitutionally enshrined right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government regulation. The Institute for Justice will ask the courts to protect Dale’s rights and see that Pinal County bureaucrats face the music by placing this persecution of outdoor dancing on trial.

“Because not all government officials can be trusted to restrain their power, our courts of law play a vital role in acting as a check against the abuse of our rights and IJ will be in court on behalf of Dale and Spencer to ensure their rights are respected and protected,” said Tim Keller, IJ-AZ’s executive director. “Pinal County is singling out San Tan Flat for arbitrary and individual harassment. IJ plans to put an end to that.”