Cynthia Granger of Arlington says that after years of watching police shows on television she knows how to "give a cop the slip."
"You know, you just drive around in circles for a while," she said as she loaded two large shopping bags filled with liquor into her car. "And then they just give up on you."
Like many residents of Northern Virginia, Granger is commuting carefully these days. Attracted to the large selections and low prices of the District's privately run liquor stores, Virginia residents who like a bargain are risking a brush with the law every time they bring more than a gallon of alcohol across the Potomac.
Undercover agents of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, who are known to stake out Washington liquor stores for suspected violators, have initiated a new crackdown on Virginia residents who exceed the one gallon limit. In the last 10 days three people have been arrested, and a spokesman for the commission said he expected more arrests.
The battle between the ABC and the District has raged for years and usually surfaces around the Christmas holidays when liquor sales are near their peak. The District government enacted emergency legislation last winter to end the surveillance, but Virginia and Maryland won a federal lawsuit to overturn that law as a violation of the D.C. government's emergency powers.
The City Council responded with nonemergency legislation prohibiting the practice. That measure will become law July 24 if Congress does not veto it.
Virginia officials complain the state loses $14 million in liquor sales to the District each year and charge that Virginians who buy in D.C. are scofflaws. District liquor retailers say that Virginia is infringing on the rights of its citizens and forcing them to pay a heavy price for their state's refusal to compete more directly in the marketplace.
"They say we are taking their money, but that's a massive distortion," said Herbert Rothberg, general manager of Central Liquor, the District's largest retail outlet. "Virginia is acting like one of those little towns down South where they have speed traps. They just rip people off because they don't want to earn their revenues the way we do."
Area retailers estimate that spirits are about 20 percent less expensive in the District than in Virginia, and that wines, which have soared in popularity over the last five years, are often half the price in the District that they are on the other side of the Potomac River.
"We are simply enforcing state laws by stopping these people," said Charles Donato, a spokesman for the Virginia ABC. "There has been an increase in the purchases."
People who are caught violating the law are subject to a $1,000 fine and a one-year jail sentence. Although the penalties are rarely imposed, ABC agents may also confiscate the liquor and the vehicle used to transport it.
Virginia, with 239 stores, is one of 18 states that controls the sale of alcohol through state-run stores. Retailers in the District say that since they purchase liquor directly from distillers they cut their costs considerably under those of the Virginia stores.
The Virginia stores have never sold beer, and wine will be gone from their shelves by the end of this summer. Wine selection at the ABC stores has frequently been criticized as limited, and the prices cannot compare to those in the District.
ABC stores in Northern Virginia have made efforts to compete with the District by extending working hours -- to appeal to commuters -- and by running weekly specials on different brands. But they have been unable to close the price gap, according to the District retailers.
"If this was furniture or clothing, Virginia would never get away with this sort of activity," said Charles Ruttenberg, an attorney for some District retail and wholesale outlets. "Our view -- and the view of the mayor -- is that you should compete fairly for customers."
To help customers get what they want without getting arrested, sales people at one District store last week were suggesting to out-of-state drivers that they "take a little whirl about town," before they head into Virginia.
"I didn't know a thing about this law," said Chris Vanden Heuvel of Alexandria as he carried far more than one gallon of beverages to his waiting car. "You mean somebody is going to arrest me for buying wine in this city? That's hard to believe."