The enforcement of alcohol laws is very important. Yet alcohol law enforcement can be inconsistent, distressing, or even illegal.
Alcohol Law Enforcement
I. DUI Accusations
II. Senior Citizens Raided
III. Ban Drinking
IV. University & Conspiracy Charge
V. Parental Rights Threatened
VI. Parental Rights Challenged
VII. Perils of Drinking in US
VIII. Tells Doctor, Loses License
IX. Dirty Bastard in Alabama
X. Seriously Bad Elf
XI. Art Gallery Wine Raids
XII. More Art Gallery Raids
XIII. Breathalyzed Pedestrians
XIV. Illegal Arrests
XV. Beer Bust
XVI. Police Revenge?
I. DUI Accusations Can Lead to Permanent Loss of Vehicle with No Compensation
Drivers accused three times of driving under the influence of alcohol can have their cars seized by police. The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico then sells their vehicles under its ordinance. And it keeps the money! So innocent drivers merely accused of DUI can be treated the same as those convicted of the crime.
The American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file suit against the “seizure and sell if accused” program. It appears to be a violation of the Constitutional right against seizure of property without due process. It’s clearly improper alcohol law enforcement.
The program simply provides for an administrative hearing. There, a city employee decides whether to confiscate and sell the vehicle. Of course, that is to the economic benefit of that clerk’s employer, the city.1
II. Senior Citizens’ Garden Party Raided
The Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control raided a weekly senior citizens’ garden party. It was held within a gated community in Mesa. Agents seized the alcoholic beverages and wrote a citation for selling alcohol without a license.
The early evening neighborhood potluck events have been held in a large garden for years. Bill Wise helped organize the events. He was cited under a state law. It’s “unlawful for a person to buy for resale, sell or deal in spirituous liquors” without a liquor license. Mr. Wise said he purchased the beer and liquor for the event with money that people put in a donation box. “People who come to the parties can contribute anything they want or they don’t have to contribute anything.”2
Liquor Conrol Agent
The liquor control agent saw things differently. He insisted that “if they are accepting money to buy liquor, it is against the law.” The Arizona Republic expressed amazement.
Imagine alcohol agents closing down home parties at which participants pool their money to buy liquor. Or agents raiding the office party because employees kicked in a few bucks to buy the hottest new merlot.3
Perhaps the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control has too many officers and too much time on its hands. Or perhaps this over zealous alcohol law enforcement is simply a reflection of the growing anti-alcohol movement in the U.S.
III. Ban Drinking on Private Property?
Santa Rosa police want the town to ban drinking alcoholic beverages on private property accessible to the public. And in vehicles on private property in view of the public.4
IV. University Head Charged with Conspiracy
Chancellor John Wiley of the University of Wisconsin at Madison was among the defendants, including 25 bar owners. A class action suit charged them with conspiring to inflate the prices of alcoholic beverages.
Price-fixing is a violation of federal antitrust laws.
Two-thirds of college undergraduates in the U.S. are of legal drinking age!
V. Parental Rights Threatened
Both common law and tradition permit parents to serve their children alcohol. Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Portuguese-Americans and many others traditionally serve their children alcohol at meals and other occasions. And these groups have very low rates of alcohol problems, partly because they teach their young people how to drink in moderation. They also eliminate alcohol as enticing “forbidden fruits.”
Yet a legislative group in Missouri has proposed a further crackdown. It would violate parental rights to serve their own children alcohol within the confines of their own home. That’s currently legal in Missouri and many other states. It’s the Joint Interim Committee to Study the Effects of Underage Drinking. It recommends that it be a crime for parents to serve their children alcohol on their own home.6
VI. Parental Rights Challenged
A Wisconsin legislator wants to change state law. It would prevent parents from serving their own children any alcohol, even within their own home.
Those who learn to drink in moderation with their parents tend to have fewer alcohol related problems. The law would cause the loss of “an important educational opportunity.”7
VII. The Perils of Drinking in America
Reporter Simon Calder of the Belfast Telegraph alerts readers traveling to the US what to expect. He explains that the US has created a tangle of confusing laws designed to deter drinking. That’s especially among young people.
For example, 48-year-old Rachel Ally was required to prove she was 21 before being served beer in Florida. But her experience is far from unique.
Grandmother Sonia Smith went shopping in New Mexico with her 35-year-old daughter and two grandchildren. But she didn’t have identification papers prove she was 21. “I was refused a bottle of tequila, even though I was 57 at the time. The assistant even refused to let my daughter pay for the bottle, because he said she would give it to me.”
Senior citizen Richard Gilbert was challenged at a store in Georgia. “Among my purchases were two small bottles of Budweiser. I was told that I would have to put the Buds back on the shelf unless I showed a photo ID. And I happened to have my Freedom Pass (a free transport ticket for over-60 in London) with me.”
In Illinois, a bald 57-year-old man had to produce evidence that he was 21 years old before being able to order a beer.
In Maryland, Simon Calder was surprised when the waitress in a pizzeria was unwilling to bring the beer he had ordered. It turned out she was under age 21 and therefore not permitted to touch the offending beverage. So he went for the beer himself and then his food arrived. But the law-abiding waitress wasn’t allowed even to move the glass a couple of inches to make room for the large pizza!
It appears that alcoholic beverages are seen as a much greater danger than are firearms in the U.S. Adults age 18, 19 and 20 can’t purchase a drink but than can legally purchase guns.8
VIII. Drinker Tells Doctor, Loses Driver’s License
A Pennsylvania man was being treated for irregular heartbeat. He described his drinking behaviors, presumably in confidence, to physicians treating him. Because he gave this information to his doctors, the patient lost his driver’s license. But the toxicology report from the hospital showed he had no alcohol in his system.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) revoked Keith Emrich’s license. That’s because a physician reported him as having a medical condition that could impair his driving ability. That medical condition is substance abuse, according to PennDOT.
The American Medical Association advises doctors to report only drivers whose impairment poses “a clear risk to public safety.” And to do so only after discussing the problem with the patient. Pennsylvania and many other states have medical notification laws.
Mr. Emrich said “I come home, and I have a few beers after work.” He says “I didn’t know they could take away my license for that.” He believes that what he does in the privacy of his own home is none of PennDOT’s business so long as no one else is effected. He had a drunken-driving conviction three decades ago. He says he no longer drinks and drives. His employer says Mr. Emrich has never appeared for work intoxicated or even with alcohol on his breath.
Medical ethicists and privacy experts say that medical notification laws discourage patients from giving their doctors facts. These are important for diagnosis and treatment. Thus these laws threaten the health and life of patients.
They also point out the obvious. Just because a person frequently drinks a lot doesn’t mean that the person ever drives under the influence of alcohol.
“A man who has sex isn’t a danger to drive – unless he’s doing it in the car while he’s on the road,” says Dr. Norman Quist. He is publisher of the Journal of Clinical Ethics, a peer-reviewed quarterly. Dr. Quist says that taking Emerich’s license has “got to be the wackiest application of a principle that I’ve ever heard of.”9
IX. No Dirty Bastard Allowed in Alabama
Dirty Bastard beer is banned in Alabama but Fat Bastard wine isn’t. That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
The argument of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is that the word “bastard” is a profanity. And it bans profanity from alcohol beverage labels. But Alabama officials not only permit the sale of Fat Bastard wine but also Raging Bitch beer.
It would appear that the Dirty Bastard folks are being denied their rights to equal protection. That is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The ban is also inconsistent with First Amendment free-speech right.
Over-control of labels for alcohol appear to be more restrictive than those for comic books. This may reflect a neo-prohibitionist impulse of many officials in state alcoholic beverage control agencies.10
X. Seriously Bad Elf Ale Battle
It would be “really awful” for persons (including adults) under 21 to see the label on “Seriously Bad Elf” seasonal ale. So insists the state of Connecticut. Does it show the mean-looking elf engaging in a sexual act? Does it show him torturing children or small animals? No. It shows him with a slingshot shooting Christmas tree ornaments at Santa’s sleigh. His sleigh is safely high in the sky.
The bitter winter ale is sold in 30 states. But the Connecticut Liquor Control division prohibited the sale of “Seriously Bad Elf” in that state. It contended that any image of Santa Claus on a label is illegal. It could cause children to want to buy it. The beer is sold in specialty and gourmet stores and each “Seriously Bad Elf” is expensive.
The previous year Liquor Control approved the sale of “Santa’s Butt” beer. Did Liquor Control think that children wouldn’t recognize Santa’s rear? Presumably the company would have experienced no difficulty had it stuck with its original idea. That was of picturing the elf roasting a reindeer on a spit without any image of Santa.
The importer of the British product said it would go to court to defend its First Amendment right to free speech. It had successfully done so earlier in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington. Its lawyer said that the state’s prohibition is a violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause.
In a hearing she cited the Bad Frog vs. New York beer label case as precedent. The New York Liquor Authority rejected a Bad Frog beer label that showed a green frog making the middle-finger gesture. It argued that children had to be protected from the image.
However, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held otherwise. “In view of the wide currency of vulgar displays throughout contemporary society, including comic books targeted directly at children, barring such displays from labels for alcoholic beverages cannot realistically be expected to reduce children’s exposure to such displays to any significant degree.” It compared the rejection of the label to “the removal of a few grains of offensive sand from a beach of vulgarity.”
The Court also asserted that an image that might attract a child is not enough reason to ban it from a beer container. That’s because there are already laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to anyone under the age of 21.
The Department of Consumer Protection oversees the Connecticut Liquor Control Board. It decided that the law applies only to distilled spirits labels, not to beer labels.
Confusing the matter, the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection said that “our regulations specifically exempt labels.” That would mean that the regulations would not apply to distilled spirits labels either. Apparently the commissioner and his own office don’t agree.
Liquor Control Division then reversed its earlier position. It decided that the law doesn’t prohibit the label after all. So it now permits the sale of “Seriously Bad Elf.”
State officials may not understand their own confusing laws and regulations. So they may not be applying them fairly and equitably. There’s apparently a “Seriously Bad Bureaucratic Mess” in the State of Connecticut.11
XI. Art Gallery Wine Raids
Some things traditionally go together. Popcorn with butter, cotton candy with the circus, art openings with wine and cheese. But now art galleries and wine might not be going together any longer in Palo Alto, California.
The state Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agency raided three art galleries. It confiscated their wine during the monthly Art Walk, in which patrons visit the galleries.
Their “crime” was serving alcohol without a permit. Palo Alto police had assured the galleries that no permit was needed because the wine was not being sold. It was offered free to adult patrons age 21 or older. The city of Palo Alto has been very supportive of the Art Walk as a positive event for the community.
The raids were apparently made because of a complaint from an anti-alcohol resident. That’s not a pretty picture for art lovers. And the art galleries have been painted as criminals.12
XII. More Art Galleries Raided for Serving Wine
Serving complimentary wine and cheese is traditional at art openings around the world. But that may be changing in Washington, DC.
The District of Columbia’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration has sent letters to each and every art gallery in the District threatening penalties. Those include imprisonment, for galleries that serve alcohol without a license.
A temporary one-day license can cost twice the value of the complimentary wine served with the cheese. When asked for clarification, an Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) official said “hire a lawyer.”
Perhaps some galleries will. It appears that some, if not all, of the galleries have legal grounds on which to claim exemption from the ABRA’s dictate.
Art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska have had openings raided by law enforcement officers to enforce prohibition.13
XIII. Forced Breathalyzer Tests on Pedestrians Illegal
A pedestrian who is under the age of 21 is at risk of being forced by police to submit to an alcohol breath test. That’s without a search warrant in Michigan. This, on the mere suspicion that the person may have consumed any alcohol. Refusal to submit to the test can result in a $100 fine.
Years earlier the U.S. District Court in Detroit held that it is illegal for police to enforce a municipal ordinance requiring pedestrians under age 21 to take a breath test for alcohol use or face a $100 fine. The ordinance is nearly identical to the state law.
A legal suit asserted that the law violates the U.S. Constitution by authorizing unwarranted searches of a person. The Court agreed, adding that “the right to be left alone in public places ranks high on the hierarchy of entitlements that citizens in a free society have come to expect at least in the context of citizen-police encounters.”
In spite of that ruling, cities and counties throughout Michigan have continued to enforce the state law. But a judge has now ruled that the city of Mt. Pleasant and Isabella County must stop enforcing the law. Otherwise they must pay two men who brought the suit $5,000 each.
“The Constitution is clear — the police cannot violate the privacy rights of pedestrians by searching them without a court order.” So said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael J. Steinberg. He added that he hopes other police departments “will stop punishing young people who are walking down the street for refusing a breathalyzer test.”
A lawyer says that police throughout Michigan have for years been violating the rights of countless young people. They do so by forcing them to submit to alcohol breath tests without cause.
But the state of Michigan and its attorney general’s office continue to defend their questionable alcohol law enforcement.14
The hand-held machines typically used in such operations generally have lower reliability than larger machines found in police department headquarters.
XIV. Illegal Underage Drinking Arrests
A Washington DC Superior Court judge has ordered the city to stop charging underage drinkers with a crime. That’s because it is a civil infraction — not a crime — under city law.
Plaintiffs complain that criminal arrests for the infraction give them damaging criminal records that plague them for life. Many of them college students.
They should be given citations similar to traffic tickets. Police routinely arrested them. They took them to a police station where they photographed, fingerprinted, and often jailed them. Alcohol law enforcement is important. But this seems to be illegal alcohol law enforcement.
An earlier lawsuit contends that people arrested for underage possession were wrongfully arrested. It seeks to have their records cleared and paid damages for those wrongful arrests.
“Carol Elder Bruce, the attorney who filed the suit, said police and prosecutors want to have the threat of jail and a criminal record at their disposal because they believe it serves as a deterrent — whether it is legal or not. ’They are deliberately trying to teach these kids a lesson by treating them roughly, by intimidating them and mocking them and making them as uncomfortable as possible,’ said Bruce.”
The DC Chief of Police is unhappy at his department’s inability now to break the law to enforce a non-existing law.15
XV. Beer Bust
The car crossed the border on a beer run and drove two miles to make the purchase. The driver and his passenger didn’t know that state police were watching their every move. Then the police followed the vehicle as it returned to cross the border again.
Armed police suddenly surrounded the vehicle shortly after it crossed the political boundary. The police quickly arrested the two criminals and confiscated their contraband beer.
Sovereign nations use police surveillance to protect their borders against intrusions by enemies who would do them harm. But the police arrested the two Americans. They had simply driven to the nearest alcohol retailer. It happened to be two miles north of the Ohio/Michigan border. And the officers weren’t the Gestapo but Ohio state liquor control agents.
In Pennsylvania, people must by law purchase all their alcoholic beverages from the state’s monopoly stores. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) operates them. But many customers describe them as similar to a state store in the former Soviet Union. They have poor selection, high prices, surly clerks, and an indifference to the public. Als0, there is an onerous 24% state tax on top of federal and other taxes.
The PLCB doesn’t want residents to escape its monopoly and enjoy the fruits of competition. That’s why it’s trying to control residents by spying on them and intimidating them.16
XVI. Police Alcohol Enforcement Squad comes up Dry, Issues Tickets & Fines Anyway
Two graduating high school women in Maryland decided to have a backyard graduation party for about 80 friends and family. There was music, s’mores, a popcorn machine, hot dogs, hamburgers, ginger ale, cranberry juice and root beer flowing. But no alcohol was available to anyone under the age of 21. It was all-American and very Norman Rockwellian
Then the police arrived to say that someone had complained about the noise. That’s not surprising because outdoor bands and big parties tend to be noisy. But the police didn’t simply ask the celebrants to lower the noise level. They wanted to give alcohol breath tests to everyone at the private party under the age of 21.
But the homeowner knew that responsible adults carefully guarded the small amount of alcohol on her property. And they restricted it to those of legal age. She also knew that a squad of uniformed police administering breath tests to the partygoers would effectively destroy the celebration. So she exercised her Constitutional rights and declined their request to invade the legal gathering without probable cause.
The police then cordoned off the entire block with six police cars. They gave alcohol breath tests as people left the home. Yet no one tested positive for any alcohol. The police regularly search for any person under the age of 21 who consumes any alcohol. “It almost seemed like they were angry that they didn’t find anything,” said the homeowner.
Then the police began ticketing vehicles parked outside the house, which included those of neighbors who weren’t at her party. Police ticketed cars for technical infractions such as a tire touching a curb.
Perhaps the homeowner was correct that the police got angry that there was no underage drinking at the party. They had clearly wasted their time. It seems they weren‘t going away without something to show for their efforts. Although the homeowner has questioned their clearly suspicious actions, the police continue to defend their behavior. This appears to be a case of alcohol law enforcement abuse of citizens.
The officers may have violated no law. But perhaps they should devote their time and energy to catching real criminals. After all, there are much more effective ways to reduce underage drinking.
“Give a small boy a hammer and he’ll go around hitting everything in sight.”17
This is a small sample of alcohol law enforcement that is inconsistent, surprising or even illegal.
1 Council eyes tough DUI strategy. New Mexican, Jan 10, 2017.
2 AZ liquor agents raid seniors’ party, confiscate booze. Arizona Republic, Jan 15, 2015.
4 Callahan, M. SR (Santa Rosa) weighs alcohol ban on private property. Press Demo, May 14, 2014.
5 Foley, R. Bar owners hit with another suit. WI State J, Oct 5, 2015.
6 Lieb, D. Tougher laws proposed to fight underage drinking Springfield News-Leader, Nov 13, 2014.
7 Lawmaker wants an end to drinking with parents. www.madison.com, Aug 20, 2013.
8 Calder, S. The perils of drinking in America. Belfast Tele, April 24, 2014.
9 Caldwell, C. Beer drinker fights to get driver’s license back. Patriot-News, July 13, 2004. Raffaele, M. Candor costs patient his license. Phila Inquirer, July 14, 2014.
10 Hudson, D. Dirty Bastard beer ban defied logic. Newseum website, April 24, 2012. Gomez, B. Ban of Dirty Bastard beer sets uncomfortable precedent. Comic Book Legal Def Fund website, May 1, 2012.
11 Eaton-Robb, P. Connecticut wants to ban beer with elf label. Huffington Post, Oct 29, 2005. Dager, W. “Seriously Bad Elf” won’t corrupt children. Ventura County Star, Nov 10, 2015.
12 Art galleries raided, alcohol seized. Palo Alto Online, June 7, 2014.
13 Holkinson, N. Art With Wine & Cheese. Wash Post, May 18, 2002.
14 Gray, I. City settles walking alcohol test suit. Morning Star, April 18, 2016.
15 Cauvin, H. Criminal Charges Halted in Underage Alcohol Cases: D.C. Police Chief “Not Happy.” Wash Post, May 30, 2014, page C01.
16 Erb, R. Ohio agents seized brew from Michigan. Toledo Blade, Oct 17, 2066.
17 Trejos, N. and de Vise, D. Police Ticket Cars in Lieu of Teens. Wash Post, p. B04, June 7, 2015.
Resources on Alcohol Law Enforcement
- Alcohol Law Enforcement: Beyond the Ordinary.
- Alcohol Law Enforcement in Alaska.
- ALE annual report of the Alcohol Law Enforcement Division of the North Carolina Department of Crime Control.
- This site gives no advice. Please see a lawyer for alcohol law enforcement questions.