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


The Zion Lion said...

What happens if you are moving into PA and own a wine/beer/scotch collection? Is this illegal (it would seem that it would be, from the response). Seems to violate basic freedom of movement ideals in the constitution.

the infamous roger said...

Pretty awesome that the state is able to regulate interstate commerce AND international commerce.

Good ol' 21st amendment...

Lew Bryson said...

Indeed, Roger: it's all about the 21st Amendment.

Saul, I completely agree with you, on both points. But the courts have ruled pretty regularly that the 21st Amendment trumps the commerce clause.

Dwight said...

Sounds right that the laws are constitutional but absurd. So you have to change the laws and the question is whether there is enough popular support in Pa. to do that. Even with tremendous popular support, it would be something like an irresistable force (popular backlash) meeting an immovable object (a powerful government bureaucracy). While different, the ill-fated Whisky Rebellion comes to mind. I'd certainly vote for you, Lew, or your proposed changes to try to bring Pa. back in line with the other colonies.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The Commerce Clause of the Constitution normally works to prevent state protectionism, with the objective of maintaining the United States as a national market, with one big exception--you guessed it--alcohol. And the exception is right there in the Constitutional Amendment that repealed Prohibition (the 21st), as Lew notes.

I think the sacramental wine license is the way to go, assuming it covers beer and bourbon.

Frustrated_in_PA said...

This seems almost silly to ask, but does "any alcoholic beverage" include beer? Liquor and wine are mentioned. How/is beer different?

Lew Bryson said...

Couple things, Frustrated (great nom de Net, BTW).
First, I only asked them about wine. Second, they really only care about wine and spirits, because they don't make any "Look, Daddy Legislature, I made all this!" money on beer. The PLCB tolerates beer, they don't encourage it.

Anonymous said...

So apparently the "proper protocol" would be "bury the bottles in the trunk of your car and don't talk about it." Way to go, PA....

Anonymous said...

This is state law and has nothing to do with the LCB. Most, if not all, states have similar laws. It's about the tax money.

Lew Bryson said...

First, your reading comprehension sucks. I clearly noted exactly what you're saying: this is a fault of the legislature. However, most states that have such laws have a mechanism to pay the tax. Pennsylvania never bothered, which makes it impossible to legally bring any booze in, even if I wanted to pay the tax.