Monday, April 7, 2014

Rant: The Crime Of Transporting Wine

You've probably broken some Massachusetts wine laws and didn't even realize it. And even if you were aware of those laws, you probably have ignored them. It is not as if the police typically enforce those laws, though the possibility exists and recent examples of police action in Vermont may not bode well for those of us in Massachusetts.

The law in Vermont states that you cannot transport into the state more than 6 gallons of wine, the equivalent of about 30 bottles of wine. In December 2013, during a traffic stop, the Vermont State Police arrested a man for violation of this transportation law. The driver had purchased the wine in New Hampshire and was taking it to New York. Though the exact amount of alcohol was not mentioned, it was noted it totaled over $44,000. Then, in March 2014, the State Police stopped another driver who was transporting 33 gallons of wine he purchased in New Hampshire. The police confiscated 27 gallons of the wine and charged him with Illegal Vinous Beverage Importation. Though such arrests are rare, having two such arrests in a short time period is worrisome. Does it indicate a new trend to enforce the law?

This could happen in Massachusetts too. Under MA General Laws Chapter 138, Section 2, it states: "No person shall manufacture, with intent to sell, sell or expose or keep for sale, store, transport, import or export alcoholic beverages or alcohol, except as authorized by this chapter;..." So, if you travel to a New Hampshire liquor store, buy a single bottle of wine and bring it back to Massachusetts, you have broken the law. One bottle, one case, or two cases, it is all the same. And according to Rick Gerrish, the director of marketing for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, more than 50% of their sales are to out of state buyers, including about 28% from Massachusetts. That is a lot of law breakers.

To legally transport wine from New Hampshire, you need to apply for a special permit: Application for a Special Permit to Import Household Effects/Gifts Into Massachusetts. You will also have to pay a small fee for your alcohol, such as 55 cents per gallon of still wine and 70 cents per gallon of sparkling wine. Spirits cost the most, at $4.05 per gallon. How many people though avail themselves of this special permit? In 2009, only 168 special permits were issued and in 2013, the number had barely changed, to 169. These permits cover not just wine transported from New Hampshire, but also wine from any other state. Bringing wine home with you from a vacation? That is probably illegal too unless you possess one of these special permits. Have any of my readers ever obtained one of these permits?

Even transporting wine within Massachusetts can cause problems with the law. According to MA General Laws Chapter 138, Section 22"Any person may, but only for his own use and that of his family and guests, transport alcoholic beverages or alcohol, without any license or permit, but not exceeding in amount, at any one time, twenty gallons of malt beverages, three gallons of any other alcoholic beverage, or one gallon of alcohol, or their measured equivalent;..." This means that if you transport more than 15 bottles of wine in your car, you would be in violation. So if you buy two cases of wine at your local store, you legally are not allowed to transport it to your home without a special permit. Isn't that crazy?

These laws are rarely enforced so why even have them? Why have these Swords of Damocles hanging over the heads of wine lovers? They are relics of Prohibition and the time to change these laws is now. Unfortunately, it is doubtful anything will be done by our legislators in this regard. House Bill 294 is still languishing, awaiting a vote, and the length of time it has taken to even get to that point has been far too long. However, the more consumers speak up, the better. They need to contact their legislators, to demand action. Let us work together to change these relic laws and enable wine lovers to get whatever wine they desire.

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