Mayor Marion Barry has asked the D.C. City Council to adopt emergency legislation to prohibit state revenue officers from conducting surveillance outside District liquor stores to detect customers who may transport illegal amounts of liquor across state lines.
Barry alleges that the surveillance has resulted in a decline in sales at District liquor stores.
The proposal is particularly aimed at Maryland and Virginia revenue agents who obtain surveillance permits from the D.C. police department. The revenue officers follow customers across the state line and have the authority to ticket the buyers and confiscate illegal quantities of liquor.
Virginia law, for example, prohibits persons from bringing more than one gallon of any alcoholic beverage into the state and violators face a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and a year in jail.
The mayor's proposal is the second time in as many years that the City Council has been asked to consider legislation to curtail the activities of revenue agents just before the Christmas holidays. The council last year adopted emergency legislation to force revenue officers to give D.C. police 30 days' notice before conducting surveillances.
The main issue centers around which jurisdictions receive liquor revenues.
In a letter to City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, Barry said that the surveillances have caused liquor sales in the District to drop and led to harassment of District customers. "This has resulted in a significant loss of tax revenues that the District of Columbia can ill afford," Barry wrote.
The mayor said state laws "protect state-owned and private liquor dealers from vigorous competition" with the city's retail stores.
Nevertheless, Pauline Schneider, the mayor's director of governmental relations, said that the executive branch did not have any figures to document a decline in District liquor sales, although representatives for the industry had indicated that it was "substantial."
Schneider also said that the number of surveillances had grown in recent months and is expected to increase even more during the holidays. She said that the proposed legislation is particularly aimed at Virginia, which has the largest number of revenue agents.
Both the Maryland and Virginia liquor laws are aimed at preventing the loss of tax revenue.
Carl Hayden, assistant special agent in charge with the regulatory division of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, said that 15 Virginia agents are assigned to watch District stores. He said there has not been any increase in surveillance activity, although most of the agents probably have permits for surveillance work through the end of the year.
If the District permanently prohibits surveillance activities, Hayden said that Virginia would have to abide by the law. "But it sounds like it could be unconstitutional in that it is directed at a particular class of people," he added.
If adopted on an emergency basis, Barry's proposal would be in effect for 90 days. But Barry and four City Council members who discussed the measure during a council judiciary meeting yesterday favor some type of permanent legislation.