The white-haired man in the parking lot next to Georgetown's Eagle Liquors reached his car, a green Toyota with Virginia tags, balanced a box of four one-gallon jugs of Franzia white wine on his knee and opened the car door.
"Excuse me sir," a stranger asked, "are you taking that wine home to Virginia?"
"Ah, no," he said, looking around nervously. "I'm dropping it off at a friend's house in the District." The stranger then identified himself as a reporter.
"Oh, well, if you're sure you're not a cop, I'm having a little party at home," said the Arlington lawyer, who asked not to be identified. "I know it's illegal to take this into Virginia, but I'm an optimist. I don't think I'm going to get picked up, and the wine is cheaper in the District."
The lawyer then drove safely across Key Bridge to Arlington. He was one of the lucky ones. So far this month, investigators from the Enforcement Division of the Virginia ABC board have confiscated more than 500 gallons of alcohol and arrested more than 45 people who, like the attorney, came to the District to purchase their holiday spirits.
Virginia law allows adults to carry only one gallon of alcohol across the state line into Virginia. A violation is a misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to a $500 fine and one year in jail.
Lured by greater selections and discount prices-- a 1 3/4-liter jug of Virginia Gentleman bourbon sells for $12.25 in Virginia ABC stores and $11.79 in the District -- thousands of Virginians each year risk criminal action to bring home the booze.
At 12:05 p.m. yesterday, 23 cars and trucks were in Eagle's busy parking lot. Sixteen had Virginia tags. They were lucky. The ABC investigators went home at noon on Christmas Eve.
Carl Hayden, assistant supervisor of the Alexandria branch of ABC's enforcement division, said from two to six plain-clothes investigators are assigned 12 months a year to make rounds at about 10 discount liquor stores in the District.
They wait in their unmarked cars for people to bring large quantities of alcohol and put it into a car with a Virginia tag. The investigators either follow the car across the state line or radio ahead to another team, which stops the car, issues a summons and confiscates the alcohol.
Confiscated beer is taken to a dump and bulldozed and some liquor is resold in Virginia ABC stores, with the proceeds going to schools and libraries, Hayden said. Some goes to hospitals for patients whose doctors say they may have a nip before bedtime.
We're just doing our job, upholding the law," he said.
Eagle owner Doug Burdette, however, said the investigators "are committing an outrage, an infringement of people's rights. I mean, I can go into Virginia and buy underwear at a discount. Why can't people come here and buy their liquor at a discount?
"For a while, I was thinking of putting a big sign up in the store with pictures of the ABC guys and descriptions and license numbers of their cars."
On Wednesday, when business was especially heavy, Burdette said he spent three hours standing outside his store, watching for the three vehicles he knows ABC investigators use.
"I tell them to drive around in the District a while, maybe have lunch, to throw the investigators off before crossing the bridge."
Some of his Virginia customers are bound to get caught, he said. "They don't get mad at me, though. I've had customers who got stopped, have their liquor confiscated, and then turn around and come back to buy the same things again."