The American Civil Liberties Union -- often leading necessary but unpopular battles to defend the rights of neo-Nazis and to keep public schools free of religious indoctrination -- might soon have a cause that will appeal to even the most blue-collar, God-fearing conservative. The ACLU of Ohio is ready to defend the freedom to drink beer in one's home without police inspections.
A state regulation that took effect last week requires people who buy five or more kegs of beer to sign affidavits telling state liquor-control authorities when and where they will drink it. Rules adopted by the Ohio Department of Public Safety require five days' notice.
But the rules do more than require beer-drinker registration. They also require buyers to agree to let law enforcement enter their property to make sure no laws are being broken.
The issue isn't beer but warrantless searches of private property, according to Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio.
"It gives the Ohio Liquor Commission the right to enter your property during any time that you say you're using the kegs," Link says. "They have law-enforcement powers. It makes a great lie of the belief that, in America, your home is your castle. Not if you want to drink beer!"
Julie Ehrhart, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, says the specter of police officers walking in the front door to check on beer drinkers is a bogeyman. It ain't gonna happen unless police believe violence or underage drinking is underway, she says.
"It grants permission," Ehrhart says. "However, the enforcement is going to be based on a totality of circumstances. Just because they have this form in hand, they're not going to just go in your house. They're not going to storm each and every residence."
Intended to address rowdy keg parties at Ohio University and Ohio State University, the law could also come into play for wedding parties, graduation parties -- or just because a beer drinker prefers to buy five kegs at once.
Paul Abrams, spokesman for Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing, says the new rules will have little impact on Cincinnati operations.
"We sell anywhere from 150 to 200 kegs a week, but most of our customers purchase one or two kegs at a time," he says. "With the rules at the University of Cincinnati, we're not seeing big keg parties on campus anymore."
But Abrams chafes at the idea of letting police in just to see who's drinking beer, when and in what quantity.
"I don't think the state is really trying to go after individual consumers, but binge drinking on campuses," he says. "But as the law reads, it can work that way. I'm a little suspect of laws signing over the ability to come into your property and notifying the state you're having a big party. It's a little bit Big Brother-ish."
It's a lot Big Brother-ish, according to Link, who says the ACLU is waiting for a client to provide a case to challenge the new rules.
"These regulations effectively require citizens to sign away their right to be free from otherwise unlawful police searches in exchange for the opportunity to buy beer in quantity which is, remember, a perfectly lawful activity," she says. "This is serious business, and the state should know that we are prepared to take it seriously."
Loopholes will give the determined keg customer some leeway. Buy four kegs, and the state will be none the wiser. Or cross state lines and buy the five in Kentucky, although that risks violating other state laws.
The whole idea smacks of an incremental restoration of Prohibition, according to Abrams. He sees the regulation as part of the push to lower the legal definition of intoxication to 0.8 percent and other limits on alcohol use.
"I question the need for additional regulation," he says. "It smacks of neo-Prohibitionism. Look at these laws as a stair step. If you look at it as an American citizen, this is very disturbing."
The best loophole of all is one that many beer drinkers might not know and the state isn't advertising. Even after signing the consent form allowing law enforcement to join the party without a warrant, a citizen can revoke permission once the authorities arrive.
"If you don't want them to come in your house, you can revoke your consent," Ehrhart says. "We are fully aware of the Fourth Amendment. We are not going to go invading people's privacy."
The U.S. Constitution, it seems, trumps any bureaucratic form required to buy lots of beer. At least for now.
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