Last night, the Washington State Liquor Control Board sponsored a public hearing at City Hall on the success (or lack thereof) of the city of Seattle's Alcohol

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Booze Ban Fails

The city is still pushing its flawed Alcohol Impact Areas.

Last night, the Washington State Liquor Control Board sponsored a public hearing at City Hall on the success (or lack thereof) of the city of Seattle's Alcohol Impact Areas (AIA), where the sale of high-powered liquor, the kind designed to get you efficiently drunk, is limited. Jordan Royer of the mayor's office asked the board to give its blessing to the city's plans to make mandatory AIAs covering the U District and the city's entire central core. (Borders: Elliott Avenue and Alaskan Way to the west, Royal Brougham Way and South Norman Street to the south, 29th Avenue East on the east, and Aloha Street to the north.)

To the city's credit, it didn't cook any stats in admitting that both the currently mandated Pioneer Square AIA and the voluntary AIAs had essentially been failures. Interestingly, it cited these failures—compounded by widespread refusal of booze vendors to sign Community Good Neighbor Agreements (CGNA)—as justification for making the AIAs mandatory and eventually expanding their reach.

Royer said that CGNA participation rates in the voluntary AIAs stood at around 30 percent and summarized vendor opposition thusly: "Why should I comply when the guy down the street can not comply and get all my business?" In reference to Pioneer Square, he blamed that AIA's failure on the area being too small—saying that chronic public inebriates could simply walk up the road a few blocks to score their forbidden hooch, which the city would like to expand to 34 banned brands—mainly cheap beer, malt liquor, and fortified wine.

Two gentlemen, Ben Schroeter and Matt Fox, spoke in opposition to the city's proposal to cement and expand AIA powers, which was generally supported by those in attendance. (A second hearing is imminent before the Liquor Board draws any conclusions.) Said Fox: "Not everybody who buys these products is a chronic public inebriate. In the U District, I've seen people in line all the time with these products who are working stiffs and poor people who have nothing to do with these problems."

Schroeter, a recovering drug addict, added: "The problem I have with the AIA is it doesn't do anything to help the alcoholic whatsoever. It has to do with issues of race and class. Certainly most of the people who consume these beverages are law-abiding citizens."

The city countered Schroeter's first claim by pointing to programs such as the Downtown Emergency Service Center and an Eastlake residence for serious boozers as evidence that the AIA is only one piece of a comprehensive attack.

What hasn't come up yet is the fact that AIAs may be baldly unconstitutional. Costco's recent invocation of the Interstate Commerce Clause as a way to trump the 21st Amendment (which gives states power to regulate booze) is one approach a canny constitutional lawyer might use; the other is equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Says prominent local attorney Dave Osgood of these various approaches: "It's well within the liquor board's power to delist Wild Irish Rose or fortified wine. This is why you don't have Everclear in Washington state. The WSLCB has the power under the 21st Amendment to either allow or not allow any of the brands to be sold, statewide. If the hooch manufacturers pressed their case too hard with the City, the WSLCB would delist the product, and the manufacturers would have to take them to Federal Court on Interstate Commerce Clause vs. 21st Amendment grounds. In this post-Costco v. WSLCB climate, the WSLCB would probably lose eventually, but they could ban the product until then."

And what of the 14th amendment and equal protection, which case law supports as trumping the 21st Amendment? "Equal protection has different levels of scrutiny," says Osgood. "If you're basically arguing that you're being discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, etc. You've got strict scrutiny and the court looks at these rationales seriously. If you're not being treated fairly, they apply what's called a rational basis test—is there any non-discriminatory basis for the city's action. And what they'll say is they've shown that the problem with chronic public inebriates is more serious in the downtown office core than, say, Wedgwood. It's very difficult to prevail when you're challenging a government action under rational basis. It can be done, but it's a very tough road to hoe. But even under a rational basis test, one can win if it can be shown that the board is acting arbitrarily."

To this end, Ballard, which boasts drunken incident levels similar to the University District, has not yet been included in any AIA proposals. Of Ballard, Royer simply said: "We do have some issues there."

 
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