Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It Is Still Illegal to Sell Alcohol Without a License


The following is presented as a public service. This is not legal advice, it is general legal information.

It is illegal to sell alcohol without a license.

This is true everywhere in the United States. There are no exceptions.

This keeps coming up because there are many people who collect whiskey. Whiskey is booming right now and so is whiskey collecting. Collectors of anything, from stamps and coins to Shirley Temple (RIP) memorabilia, usually build their collections by buying, selling, and trading with other collectors. That's normal. It's a big part of the fun of collecting.

But if what you collect is an alcoholic beverage, it's also against the law.

I last wrote about this just ten months ago, here. The Facebook page discussed in that post was taken down a few months ago. To protect the folks involved, I won't say more about it. Before that, eBay did a brisk business in whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. That was taken down too.

Laws regarding the possession, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages are entirely up to each state's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency to enforce. They have their own enforcement arms, their own investigators. Infractions of the ABC's rules are not crimes as far as the police are concerned. They don't get involved unless the ABC asks for their help. Someone operating an unlicensed bar or selling liquor out of the back of a minivan, or a licensed retailer selling to minors, that's what they care about. Nobody is looking to bust collectors.

But that doesn't make what collectors do legal. It's still illegal. An observation about patterns of enforcement doesn't change the underlying status of the activity. It's still against the law.

Should those laws be updated? Probably. It is hard to see how whiskey collectors do any harm. But beverage alcohol regulations are notoriously difficult to change. Most of them haven't been touched since Prohibition was repealed 80 years ago.

Social media is full of sites for enthusiasts of all kinds, including whiskey. A persistent problem for those sites is people who try to buy or sell whiskey via the site. Social media sites must be very careful about not allowing participants to advocate law-breaking. Sites that try to enable peer to peer collecting activity without doing anything illegal themselves resort to "Fight Club" rules of secrecy. They don't work. There are constantly people who either don't get it or don't care.

Perhaps this post will reach a few of them.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

How are the Bonham Auctions able to sell alcohol?

Joshua Feldman said...

No Comment.

Brent Ferrell said...

Chuck, what are your feelings regarding two people swapping bottles/making an even trade?

Chuck Cowdery said...

In a cash transaction, it is unclear if the buyer is breaking any laws. In a trade, both are effectively sellers. Trading is selling and both parties are sellers.

Anonymous said...

If I share a glass with a buddy, all is well. If he gives me his bottle of something he likes for something I have that I like but we each like the other better, it is not legal. BRILLIANT lawmaking

Andrew said...

What if I were to give a friend a bottle as a gift? And suppose he was so awestruck by my generosity that he chose to give me a bottle as a gift from his collection in return. When does the legal definition of gifting(if there is one) end and the definition of one such illegal trade begin?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Unless the transaction takes place in the lobby of your state ABC, it's not something you have to worry about. There is no record of this type of violation being prosecuted, but that doesn't change the law as written.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Re Bonham, some states permit alcohol auctions and grant the auction company a special license to that effect. Auctions are the only legal secondary market for alcoholic beverages.

Anonymous said...

As you say, Chuck, there is no record of this sort of violation (small scale, personal sale/trading of alcohol between adults) being prosecuted in recent times. And who is going to convince the police to go out and prosecute the violators? Not the state ABC's - they have bigger fish to fry. Liquor stores and wholesalers and producers don't care - the enthusiast/collectible market is helping their bottom line! Soccer moms who don't want their kids ordering bourbon over the internet (which some people blame for eBay stopping sales of alcohol)? What kid is going to pay $150 for a bottle of High West Bourye when they have a better shot at using a fake ID at the local packy? So we have laws that aren't being enforced by state/federal authorities, and probably won't be, with respect to these small-scale transactions. Really, the only enforcement is being done by private companies who shut down the online exchanges as a way to limit their liability in the event there ever is some sort of enforcement action. Although some sort of grass-roots effort to change the laws would of course be better, I think it's great that people are using creative ways to ignore meaningless restrictions and get some pretty amazing whiskies to try!

Chuck Cowdery said...

While I endorse the goal, law-breaking even done mindfully is risky. That's my purpose in trying to raise awareness of this issue.

Brent Ferrell said...

I guess no more bottles of wine given out at Christmas time.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Are you selling them? This has nothing to do with gifts.

Anonymous said...

I think where the regulators are going to step in is when they see organized activity, openly conducted on a decent scale. Ebay and the Facebook group were good examples of this.

Anonymous said...

Illegal to collect whiskey? Really? It sounds somebody missed a memo that the prohibition ended almost 90 year ago.