City Loses Booze Ban
State District Judge Sarah M Singleton rules against mini booze bottle ban that had been set to take effect this weekLocal NewsTuesday, October 6, 2015
It turns out you can fight City Hall. It’s just that City Hall can’t fight state law—especially when it’s the Liquor Control Act.
And for all those who covet those miniature bottles of booze, you’re free to buy them, and liquor stores are free to sell them.
State District Judge Sarah Singleton sided with the liquor industry in a hearing this afternoon, ruling that Santa Fe can't ban sales of the tiny plastic bottles, a restriction the city sought in an ordinance passed in the late spring that was scheduled to take effect Thursday.
In a 30-minute hearing that turned out to be part entertaining, part lesson in the quandaries of interpreting Legislative intent, Singleton ruled that the Liquor Control Act never expressly denied the sales of the bottles, and therefore, the city had overstepped its boundaries by trying to deny the sales itself.
The Santa Fe City Council adopted the law ostensibly hoping to rid its streets of the thousands of plastic bottles, which proponents of the ban claim are often consumed quickly and then thrown out the car window.
No sooner was the ban passed than the owners of liquor stores in the City Different expressed outrage, claiming it was unconstitutional that one particular product on their shelves was actually being singled out, and so word on the street was that they were going to sue the city.
But the city went to court first, asking the court to rule the law was valid before the industry could sue to overturn and delay the implementation. All of which led to the showdown in Singleton’s court, after motions and countermotions were filed by the city and the liquor stores throughout the summer.
Randy Bartell, attorney for the defendant, Liquid Company Package Liquors in Santa Fe, said even while the purpose of the city ordinance is ‘’good and legitimate,” its very existence pre-empts state law, and as a home charter city, Santa Fe does not have the right to pass local laws that usurp state law.
Alfred Walker, the city’s attorney on the case, argued that the city was merely trying to enforce its litter laws and that the Liquor Control Act, passed four decades ago, does not take litter control into account; what’s more, and perhaps more importantly, he said the Liquor Control Act does not expressly permit the sales of miniature bottles of booze.
“It’s silent on the subject,” Walker argued of the act, a presupposition that led to an exchange between Singleton and Walker, with Singleton saying that the liquor act permits the sales of virtually all liquors as a whole, no matter the size or the containers they come in.
Walker tried to fortify his case by citing precedents, like anti-smoking ordinances passed by cities in New Mexico, something the state had no problem with and in fact eventually followed, or the issue of Santa Fe increasing the minimum wage under the Living Wage ordinance; even though it contradicted the state’s minimum wage law, it was successful.
But time and again, Singleton kept to the issue at hand, asking questions like, "Why doesn’t the city ban the sales of single beer cans?" It’s something Singleton said she sees regularly around town. At which point, Walker countered that he rides the bus and has spent time in plenty of bus stations and that all he sees are tiny empty plastic bottles of booze.
At the end of the hearing, Singleton ordered both Bartell and Walker to get together and come up with an order that would outline her decision. She wanted the pair to talk about the order and come to an agreement that went beyond stating that one side won, the other lost, which is usually standard fare in some orders.
Although the city of Santa Fe could have appealed Singleton’s ruling, it long ago decided it would not, and in the meantime, people who live in the vicinity of liquor stores say they keep seeing the empty bottles strewn across their properties, while the larger single cans and bottles can be found about a block or two away, the feeling being that it takes a few blocks longer to drink and throw away the larger containers.
Santa Fe City Councilor Sig Lindell says she was disappointed by the ruling, but at least the city gave it its all.