Vice Squad
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Open Containers

The US has a de facto national minimum drinking age of 21, even though setting a drinking age falls within the power of the several states. Likewise, there's a de facto national blood-alcohol content (BAC) standard for drunk driving, 0.8 (centigrams per milliliter). These alcohol policy benchmarks were thrust upon the states by threats to cut the federal highway funds of those states whose standards were less strict than the federal guidelines.

But there is one element of alcohol policy on which the federal government has not been quite as successful in forcing compliance upon the states: open container laws. The feds want states to (among other things) prohibit open containers of alcohol in cars, even if the driver is not consuming any alcohol. The penalties for non-compliance are not all that draconian, however: three percent of the scofflaw state's allotment of federal highway funds becomes earmarked for anti-alcohol purposes. A handful of those ornery states have been willing to pay this price to skirt the federal mandates.

The recent news is that Delaware will remain outside the fold. The state senate couldn't get around to approving a bill that would have mildly fined drivers whose adult passengers were tippling during the trip. (Actually, I am uncertain whether the fine was to be imposed upon the driver or the open-container-possessing passenger. Montana, for instance, fines the passenger.) Delaware has shown more backbone in this regard than Texas, a state which practically celebrated open containers (even for drivers) when Vice Squad resided there in the early 1980s.

I haven't studied the issue, but my unconsidered reaction is to oppose federal fiscal pressure to coerce states into passing laws that the feds support but do not have the direct power to enact. We have a federal system with enumerated powers for the center. Since the Constitution that set up this system was passed, we have evolved a framework of public finance that makes states quite reliant upon transfers from the central government. Threats to cut off funding, therefore, can be used (and I think have been used) to shift state legislative authority to the federal government, dissolving the constitutional limits placed upon federal powers. Sorta like the commerce clause dodge...

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