The State of Maryland filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court yesterday contending that a new District law preventing state revenue agents from conducting surveillances at District liquor stores is unconstitutional and will result in the loss of liquor sale revenues.
The lawsuit seeks to prohibit the District from enforcing the law.
Until last week, Maryland and Virginia revenue officers could obtain surveillance permits from the District to observe city liquor store customers with state license tags. The customers would then be stopped if they took illegal amounts of liquor across state lines. The legal limit is one quart for Maryland residents and one gallon for Virginia residents.
At Mayor Marion Barry's request, the D.C. City Council adopted emergency legislation to prohibit any surveillance for 90 days. Barry had argued that the surveillances had caused a decline in the sales at District liquor stores and disturbances outside the stores.
Yesterday, Maryland Comptroller Louis Goldstein and two inspectors from Maryland's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division filed suit against Barry, the City Council and District Police Chief Maurice M. Turner. The suit alleges that the District law interferes with interstate commerce and deprives the state and its inspectors of constitutional protections.
"Without the ability to engage in surveillance activities, the state loses its only effective means of detecting illegal consumer importation of alcoholic beverages in Maryland," the lawsuit stated. "Without the deterrent effect such surveillance undoubtedly has on the illegal consumer importation of alcoholic beverages . . . Maryland will suffer an incalculable loss of revenues from the sale of alcoholic beverages."
A spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office said yesterday that the state is contemplating legal action to challenge the District law but has not made a decision.
The District is expected to present arguments against the lawsuit at a hearing today. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed to allow attorney Charles Ruttenberg, who represents about 30 District liquor businesses, to participate in the hearing on the side of the District government.
Meanwhile, some City Council members have mixed views about the law.
Prior to voting for the legislation, council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said that she and other members had had informal discussions during which constitutional questions were raised.
"I was aware that there were some questions about constitutionality but my major concern was the protection of customers from being harassed and of District-based businesses," Jarvis said.
Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At-Large), who voted against the law, said that she is not certain that the law is constitutional.
"I don't know if it is constitutional and there was still a question in my mind," said Mason. "I had very strong feelings about it. I think the council was trying to protect our constituents and sometimes we can make mistakes. I didn't want to make a mistake."
Although the emergency legislation is temporary, Barry has asked the council to make the ban on surveillance permanent.