Legal Problems With Online Liquor Sales

It's a "problem" that teens have tried to solve for generations – "How to buy alcohol before they're of legal age?" Today's teens have an advantage over their predecessors, however: the Internet.

No longer are fake ID's or the kindness of older friends, relatives, or strangers required; as an increasing number of websites provide retail sales and home delivery of alcoholic beverages without the physical inspection of identification – or the matching of a presented ID with the person presenting it. Often, all that is needed is a credit card and the click of an "I'm Over 21" button – and with the growing use of legitimately issued credit cards by minors, or the "borrowing" of a parent's card (usually without their knowledge or approval), all that stands between a youth and his liquor is a few minutes online, the telling of a lie, and a wait for the delivery man.

A nationwide battle over the ease at which minors can obtain liquor over the Internet is now currently underway, with the Supreme Court expected to voice its opinion on the issue in response to several conflicting rulings made by Michigan and New York state courts over the legality of shipping alcoholic beverages directly to consumers.

While most states impose limits on the practice, and 15 states ban it outright, these restrictions, which were originally designed to facilitate alcohol taxation and to require positive identification of the purchaser as an impediment to underage drinking, are under criticism by smaller, family-owned, American vineyards, which claim that these obsolete laws prevent them from competing with larger operations who dominate the limited shelf-space available at most liquor stores.

Industry estimates place the number of domestic vintners at over 2,400, most of whom produce less than 4,000 cases a year. These smaller operations compete in a marketplace dominated by around 50 large wineries which produce over 85% of domestic wines. These smaller wineries could benefit greatly by changes in the legal system that would allow them to bypass the regulated wholesale to retail system and market to consumers directly - a change that many larger operations, states, and retailers oppose.

While this might seem a small issue to many outsiders, the Supreme Court has become involved, as the dispute has become a conflict between the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents states from interfering with interstate commerce, and the 21st Amendment, which allows states to control alcohol within their own borders.

"Internet sales complicate our ability to protect minors and collect taxes," says Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, whose state reaped $168.3 million in taxes from liquor licensing and associated fees, last year alone. "This is really a states' rights issue vs. the federal government's use of the Commerce Clause to upset our regulation. So we're fighting for Michigan minors (and)...for the Constitution."

"It's a pseudo-, phony crisis that they [the smaller wineries] are creating with a public affairs and legal campaign," says Karen Gravois, spokeswoman for the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America. "The public isn't calling for this. The government isn't calling for this. If the winery is willing to sell within the regulatory system, any consumer can get any bottle of wine they want."