By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Adam Vickers is a just a regular guy who works for a general contractor and sometimes takes the back way home from work in Maryland. On occasion, he stops at a rural liquor store in Freeland, Md., to pick up some beer on his drive to Stewartstown, not far over the state line in Pennsylvania.
It sounds innocent enough, but under Pennsylvania’s Prohibition-era liquor laws, Vickers is also considered a bootlegger, and he’s technically subject to a citation just for picking up some cold ones, like he did the Thursday before Labor Day.
As crazy as it sounds, it’s against the law for Pennsylvania residents to buy alcohol outside of the state and then bring it back.
“I wasn’t aware that it was actually illegal,” Vickers said, cradling a 12-pack that would become contraband as soon as his truck crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.
“It’s absurd,” he added.
Still, Vickers and the several other Pennsylvania residents who often stop at the same store on their way home from work — though technically breaking the law — probably don’t have to worry about state police setting up a roadblock to stop them.
“We’re not looking for somebody who stops and buys a case of beer on their way home in Maryland because they work in Maryland,” said Maj. Thomas Butler, director of the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.
Instead, state police worry more about people who buy large amounts of alcohol out of state, then re-sell it through their bar or licensed establishment, Butler said. That can lead to administrative law violations or criminal charges. Fines clock in at $25 for every container of wine and liquor and $10 per every container of beer, he said.
Though rare, there have been instances in which the law was enforced.
In 2012 and 2013, there were 12 administrative violations, six administrative warnings and five criminal violations, Butler said. So far this year, Butler counted eight administrative violations, one administrative warning and one criminal case.
State lawmakers tried last year to decriminalize the out-of-state purchases as part of legislation that would privatize state-owned wine and spirit stores. While that legislation cleared the state House, the state Senate hasn’t approved it.
Now, state Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, said he’s introducing separate legislation that would make sure Pennsylvanians aren’t treated like Al Capone if they buy alcohol for personal consumption in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and other border states.
In a memo seeking support, Taylor said a recent case in which state police seized more than 2,400 bottles of high-end wine from a resident spurred him to action. That case has even caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal.
“These are valuable wines and represent a significant investment by this resident. If the resident was willing to pay the necessary taxes then he should have his wines returned to him,” Taylor wrote.
While out-of-state purchases for personal use would be decriminalized, Taylor’s legislation would still require that Pennsylvanians pay state taxes on their alcohol.
Family members and friends could also reimburse somebody who bought alcohol outside Pennsylvania for them, but the legislation would include limitations to ensure nobody sells alcohol with a license, according to Taylor’s memo.
Taylor didn’t return messages seeking comment, but House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said the bootlegging regulations are another instance in which Pennsylvania’s liquor laws are “out of whack with today’s world.”
“Obviously making normally law-abiding Pennsylvania citizens into bootleggers is not one of the ‘freedoms’ people associate with government, and something we believe needs changed,” Miskin wrote in an email calling attention to Taylor’s proposal.
Freeland Wine and Spirits owner Richard Fisher said he doesn’t get a flood of customers from towns just across the state line, but said commuters such as Vickers often stop on their way home. He’d like to see Pennsylvania change the law.
“I just think it’d be a lot less stress for everybody, especially this close to the line,” Fisher said.
While a few miles off Interstate 83, Fisher’s store still has some competitive advantages when compared to Pennsylvania liquor stores — mainly, that customers can buy a case of beer, a bottle of wine and a handle of their favorite spirit all in one place. Pennsylvanians have to buy their liquor and most wine at state-owned stores and beer at a separate, privatized store.
Pennsylvanians also pay an 18 percent alcohol tax, double the 9 percent rate in Maryland. Fisher understands why someone might take advantage of that — he once bought fuel in Pennsylvania for an entire year to protest a higher gas tax in his state.
But convenience, not political protests, seems to be the main reason Pennsylvanians stop at Fisher’s store.
While many people were likely stocking up on frothy beverages for Labor Day weekend cookouts, Butler said last week that police had no plans to crack down on out-of-state alcohol purchases over the holiday. Officers are more focused on stopping sales to visibly intoxicated patrons and minors, he said.
“We do put more effort into some laws than others,” he said, “but I just can’t ignore laws that are on the books. That’s not what the state police do.”
Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.