Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Score One for the PLCB

Credit where it's due: the PLCB has done A Good Thing. PhillyMag food columnist and research editor Victor Fiorillo reported a few months ago that he'd been served what he thought was bogus Maker's Mark at Oscar's, a popular Center City dive-ish bar. He ordered another, surreptitiously poured it into a container, and left the bar with it. He sent it to the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and filed a complaint. Two weeks later, the BLCE sent an agent to Oscar's, who checked the whole place -- the Maker's, the other booze, and the taplines (they weren't being cleaned properly) -- and took samples for analysis: six bottles of confiscated liquor.

The results are in: Oscar's put shite whiskey in a Maker's bottle. The BLCE found that the sample from Oscar's did not match a true sample; they found the same with a bottle of Ketel One. What's gonna happen? Fiorillo sez, "According to [the officer], her office’s legal department will now determine whether to issue a citation, after which a fine, suspension, or other penalty could be imposed." Excellent!

So. I slagged the PLCB last year for not giving a damn about consumer protection. God knows I've slagged PhillyMag for their booze coverage. I say thank you for a job well done to both today. This is exactly the kind of thing a state booze bureaucracy should be doing: protecting me from bad, mislabeled, fraudulent booze. I realize they're probably doing it because of taxes, but you know, it all works out. Cheers to Fiorillo for following through on this. And damn Oscar's for pulling the old switcheroo: that's about the worst crap a bar can pull. Don't know what the PLCB is going to do, but I'm dropping Oscar's from PA Breweries 4th Edition. It ain't much, but it's what I can do.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"...bringing any alcoholic beverage into Pennsylvania is illegal..."

Well, I got my response. I recently wrote to the PLCB to ask them how a private citizen, who happened to be in another state and saw a nice bottle of wine for sale, and wanted to bring that bottle home to Pennsylvania, could do their duty to the Commonwealth, fill out a form, pay the taxes, or so on. How could we do the right thing in order to bring this into the State and be square, in other words?

After two weeks -- a relatively short time, considering it came from the PLCB's chief legal counsel -- I got my response this morning. I'd publish it here, only it came by e-mail in the form of a PDF image, which has so far resisted four different attempts to convert it to text. No problem; I've successfully uploaded it to Scribd, and you can see it below.

Please note, before we go any further, that they took pains to note that the State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement enforces the liquor laws, and the PLCB issues legal opinions that are binding on licensees only. "Since you are not a Board licensee, the following is offered for your guidance and information only." Ah. Kinda like the fine print on the video poker machines that Pennsylvania seems completely unable to stamp out. Okay. With that said, let's see what their opinion is.

The third paragraph puts it pretty damned simply: "The general rule is that bringing any alcoholic beverage into Pennsylvania is illegal, with limited exceptions." You have to be "the Board, a manufacturer, or the holder of a sacramental wine license or of an importer license" to transport or possess any liquor or wine within the Commonwealth that has not been purchased from the State Store System or a state winery. "Accordingly, you cannot simply cross the border into a neighboring state, purchase a bottle of wine and return to Pennsylvania, as both the importation and possession of such wine would be illegal."

However...turns out that you can bring in up to one gallon free of tax and mark-up...from outside the United States. So, New Zealand is okay; New Jersey, no way. And if the Board requests it, you have to produce evidence of such travel, the receipt proving you actually bought the stuff there (and not, for example, in New Jersey), and "an affidavit indicating that the purchaser was allowed to bring the liquor in duty-free" (no instructions on who would issue such an affadavit...). And before you think this completely painless, "The Board assesses a service charge for this importation." Of course they do.

You can receive wine and liquor from outside the Commonwealth as a gift, "so long as the proper paperwork is submitted to and cleared by the Board." And you pay the service charges and mark-up, and by the way, you have to pay the taxes to the Department of Revenue, so you have to talk to them, too.

Feeling like Kafka yet? Remember that you do have the ability to purchase wine from outside the Commonwealth! You may purchase it online! And then have it shipped to one of the State Store System's stores (of your choosing!). There are a few conditions, of course: the wine cannot be one listed on the Board's Internet catalog; you'll have to sign an affidavit that you are 21 and purchasing the wine for your own "use;" and you can't get more than 9 liters in a month. Oh, and there's a shipping charge, a handling charge, the 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax, and 6% sales tax (plus an additional 1% in Philadelphia or 2% in Allegheny County). Bet they get a lot of traffic on that one.

In short, they conclude, "...there is no proper protocol for crossing the border to purchase wine in another state and then bring it back to Pennsylvania." And that's pretty much it.

(The letter was copied to the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, to the Senior Director of the Office of Regulatory Affairs, the Director and Assistant Director of the Bureau of Licensing, and the Press Secretary. I'm not intimidated, I refuse to be.)

The beautiful thing is, they don't have to provide a proper protocol, or the reasoning for why that is not allowed. That's the responsibility of the Legislature, by way of The Almighty Liquor Code. Why is it that way? Because the State Store System and the PLCB were set up to be a total monopoly -- it's the Pennsylvania Liquore CONTROL Board, after all -- and you can't have a monopoly that leaks around the edges.

Oh, it does, of course; people bring booze into the State every day. You know it, I know it, the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, everyone knows it -- except the PLCB, apparently, as Joe "CEO" Conti continues to hold that this is a very minor problem. Sure it is. Which is why there are all those big liquor stores so close to the border in Delaware and Maryland, and why the out-of-state liquor stores run full-page ads in the Inquirer.

I am deeply offended by the very idea of this monopoly. I drive to visit my in-laws in New York and Virginia several times a year. I'm an American. What right does the State of Pennsylvania have to tell me where I can or cannot buy a bottle of liquor? If it's all about the taxes, why not make it easy for me to pay the damned things? No, instead, we're told that "bringing any alcoholic beverage into Pennsylvania is illegal." That's asinine!

Let me make this perfectly clear. I deeply appreciate the time that the lawyers at the PLCB took to write this response. I do; I have no doubt they know who I am and why I wanted to know, this site gets hits from the PLCB multiple times a week, but they responded, and they didn't mince words. I don't hold the PLCB or the BLCE responsible for this ridiculous situation.

I blame The Almighty Liquor Code and the Pennsylvania Legislature. For 75 years we have been under the patronizing thumb of this monopoly. We have no choice except theirs, we have no options but theirs, we have no way to change it or make it better. This is not the fault of the PLCB. Rather, the PLCB and all it stands for -- monopoly, conflict of interest, political patronage, lack of choice, lack of response -- is the fault of the continuing refusal of the Pennsylvania Legislature to lift this Stalinist, paternalistic, antiquated system from our shoulders. It's 2009: could we be allowed to buy a bottle of wine wherever we want? Is that so much to ask? Or do you vant to see our papers?

Read the full text of the PLCB's response on Scribd here

Friday, October 9, 2009

Following the Proper Protocol

People have asked, here and on Facebook, regarding those two folks who got busted in Sayre for bringing booze into PA...what IS the proper protocol for bringing alcoholic beverages into the state? Good question. So I asked the PLCB:
Good morning,
My friends and I have been discussing a news item from the Towanda Daily Review about two Pennsylvanians who were recently cited by the LCB for "purchasing alcoholic beverages out of state, and not following proper protocol for bringing alcoholic beverages into Pennsylvania."
We all live near the New Jersey or Delaware borders, and we were wondering: what IS the proper protocol? If we should find ourselves in a liquor store in New Jersey and see a bottle of wine that would be good with dinner, and bought it, and wanted to be legal and square with the Commonwealth, what should we do? Is there a form we can fill out to pay the taxes due? Or do we have to register our intent beforehand?
As you can imagine, there's quite a bit of this chain of thought going on in border areas. We'd like a solid answer so we can do the right thing.
-- Lew Bryson

When I get an answer...I'll share it here.

Update: "Please be advised that your inquiry has been assigned to a staff attorney for research and response." Okay. I'm waiting...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yes, They Will Bust You For It

Got this from the Towanda Daily Review.
Two charged by PLCB
Two people from Sayre were cited by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board recently on a charge of improperly bringing alcoholic beverages into the state. According to information provided by the PLCB, David Cole, 29, and Brenda Williams, 42, were cited for purchasing alcoholic beverages out of state, and not following proper protocol for bringing alcoholic beverages into Pennsylvania. Conviction for such a summary offense, according to the PLCB, is a $25 fine, plus the cost of prosecution.

You gotta figure this was an egregious offense. $25 plus costs? That was worth it. It's such a ridiculous offense: Sayre sits right on the NY border. This is like prosecuting someone in Bethlehem for buying beer in Allentown.

What really irks me is that the PLCB will do nothing, nothing at all, if someone sells me a bottle of corked wine or skunked beer. But let me buy one bottle of rotgut wine in New Jersey, and it's a summary offense.