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Is Taking Alcohol Across State Lines a Federal Crime?

By Criminal Defense Attorney on October 14, 2017

There are many reasons a person may want to take alcohol across state lines. Perhaps you are moving and want to bring your impressive wine collection with you. Or you may want to drink while staying at hotels, but also want to save some cash while doing so. Maybe you are bringing the beer for an out-of-state family reunion. Whatever the reason, the legalities of carrying alcohol across state lines can be confusing.

And you certainly want to make sure that you are not committing a federal crime, as these crimes carry the most severe penalties.

So when, if ever, is taking alcohol across state lines a federal crime?

Answer: Depends on the State

In most cases, it is not, but people need to check with the state they are entering before doing so. Most states, including California, allow alcohol to be imported into the state when that alcohol is for personal use. (Personal use is typically considered to be approximately 60 liters, or five cases.) But the laws of each state will dictate whether or not it is actually illegal.

For instance, until 2009, it was illegal for any person to bring alcohol from another state into Tennessee. That law was overturned; anyone can now take alcohol for personal use into Tennessee. Until 2015, this act was also illegal in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania also changed their laws, decriminalizing the act but still requiring individuals bringing in alcohol to pay state taxes on it.

If someone brings alcohol into a state (or perhaps even into a “dry county”) that has laws against it, as Pennsylvania and Tennessee once did, he or she could be facing state and federal charges. This is stated in the 21st Amendment of the Constitution, which effectively ended prohibition and allowed Americans to drink once again.

But the Amendment also states, “The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” This does not override state laws that allow alcohol to be brought into the state. It simply states that if a person breaks a state law by illegally bringing in alcohol, he or she could then be charged with a federal crime as well. This is echoed in Title 27 of the United States Code.

Different States Have All Sorts of Weird Alcohol Laws

Usually, when a person wants to carry a case of wine from California or a bottle of bourbon from Kentucky into another state, he will not be breaking the law and will not face any penalties. But the laws of the state being entered certainly apply in other specific situations.

For example, in Colorado, it is illegal to bring your own wine into a restaurant. In Utah, you have to order some type of food before drinking in an establishment. Pennsylvania only allows sales of liquor through 600 “state stores,” so if you run out and need to buy a few more, you had better be at an authorized retailer!

It is also important to note that most states have open container laws, prohibiting driving with a container of alcohol that has been opened inside the vehicle. In many states, including California, this is just an infraction with a penalty of a small fine. But when far from home, breaking the law can quickly become a much more serious matter. For this reason, when transporting alcohol, it is always best to leave it sealed and in the trunk of the vehicle.

If you want to learn more about transporting alcohol, and the states that will allow you to freely do so, or you have been charged with an alcohol offense in another state, contact JD Law at (760) 630-2000. The laws on the matter can be difficult to understand and our San Diego DUI attorneys have the knowledge and experience needed to explain them, what your rights are, and if those rights have been violated.

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