A Brief, Lurid History of American Nightclub Arrests

In which we encourage everyone—especially you, Plaxico Burress—to please leave your Glock at home

Getting arrested at a nightclub has become a celebrity rite of passage, like hurling epithets at paparazzi or issuing a public apology. It’s inconvenient, sure, but the only thing cooler than drinking Cristal with a Hollywood beauty at the biggest table in Club New York is getting pulled away from said starlet by a bunch of men in uniforms stammering nervously while reading you Miranda. Puff Daddy knows this. If there is such a thing as bad publicity, a pimped-out perp walk isn’t it.

In fact, the nightclub arrest, like the Texas Hold ‘Em, cow tipping, and Dean Martin, is an American invention, a product of the 18th Amendment. And who does drugs, violence, firearm possession, and boozy disorder better than Americans? Well, the Russians, if we’re being totally honest, but they’re not huge on law enforcement. 

In order to better understand the one of grandest traditions, we dug into its history and broke down the action era by era. We’ve come so far.

The Prohibition Era or “Upper-Middle-Class Piracy”

During Prohibition, many saloon and club arrests were made for the distribution and sale of alcohol. On December 22, 1921, an article ran in The New York Times, between advertisements for Schrafft’s Candy (“Christmas Candies of High Quality at Moderate Prices”) and the Saks Company (“Indestructible Pearl Necklaces”), with this screaming headline: “20 Indicted in Rum Scandal.” Twenty respectable business owners, lawyers, and even a couple of apparently ambivalent temperance politicians were caught in a subterranean speakeasy, snifters in hand. Basically, the scandal was a cocktail party. It was a different time.

But as the teetotalers grew more powerful, the nightclub incident got a hell of a lot more colorful. On the night of January 21, 1926, the New York police department engaged in a 15-minute “battle with bullets and fists,” and eventually captured 25 “river pirates” as they tried to flee their makeshift dockside saloon in Red Hook. At least those guys had something to brag about when they got tossed in the tank.

The Midcentury Mafia Epoch or “Why Is This Pre-Teen Packing?”

When Prohibition ended, America’s organized-crime families celebrated by getting back to the basics and murdering each other. A favorite pastime was offing rivals as they sat in barbers’ chairs or nightclub booths. For example, in August 1964, the Times reported that a 15-year-old Italian boy had been arrested at the Smart Set Club for the assassination of 20-year-old Ralph Napolitano. While higher-ups in New York’s big crime families often committed murders in nightclubs, they often had the skills to evade arrest, the money to pay off the police, or both.

We still want to know if the kid had a fake ID.

The Cocaine and Disco Decade or “Snow Falling on Breeders”

Celebrities started leaving clubs in the paddy wagon in the mid to late 1970s as clubs like Studio 54 facilitated the mingling of the famous with the infamous (and a ton of drugs). While two bartenders were arrested there in 1977 for selling liquor without a license, the victim of Studio 54’s first significant arrest was no less than its owner, Ian Schrager. Schrager’s partner, Steve Rubell, bragged to the press that his club had made $7 million in a year. IRS agents, who never got invited to cool parties, raided the club. Shrager was only arrested—in front of Bianca Jagger and Halston, no less—when an agent found five ounces of cocaine on a filing cabinet. If only Shrager had kept better track of his assets.

A year later, the co-owners were arrested for brawling with local TV reporters. The year after that, they were arrested for skimming $2.5 million in ticket revenue. No matter—the IRS can’t seize happy memories.

The TMZ Period or “Safeties First”

It’s unclear whether the tabloids got smart or celebrities got stupid, but the 1980s saw the rise of the assisted nightclub exit. The biggest accessory trend? Unregistered guns, which got artists like Run DMC and Snoop Dog detained. Amid the glitz and ego of the ’90s were even more detentions. Notorious B.I.G. was arrested after a performance at the (delightfully named) Pulsations Nightclub for “breaking a man’s jaw and stealing his portable phone, jewelry, and beeper.” In 1999, Sean “Puffy” Combs was arrested for involvement in the shooting injuries of three people in a Times Square nightclub. The same year, Jay-Z was arrested for the stabbing of producer Lance Rivera at the Kit Kat Klub. Say what you will, but these guys had street cred.

On the other side of town, a group of people with nothing even vaguely resembling street cred were getting picked off one by one. Gossip Girl pretty boy Chace Crawford was arrested in the parking lot of Plano’s Pub for marijuana possession, Lindsay Lohan for punching a woman in the face, and Justin Bieber for drunken drag-racing in Miami. Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne got hauled off the dance floor for drug charges, and Chris Brown was apprehended following a scuffle with Drake’s entourage. In addition, many NFL, NBA, and MLB teams are represented on this list by at least one player, often more. While he technically evaded arrest until after leaving New York’s LQ nightclub, infamous butterfingers Plaxico Burress did shoot himself in the thigh on a dance floor with an unlicensed Glock. Comeback be damned, that’s the first line of his obituary. 

The Postmodern Era or “Ouroboros Discotheque”

Brace yourself for this one: In the summer of 2014, Shia LaBeouf was arrested for disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing during a performance of Cabaret at Studio 54. In other words, famous actor Shia LaBeouf was arrested for interrupting the performance of a famous fictional nightclub act on the real stage of an iconic former nightclub on whose dance floor the original star of Cabaret, Liza Minelli, spent most of the late ’70s hanging out with Ian Schrager.

Time is a flat circle.

Photos by Bettmann / Corbis / AP Images