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Down with the Nanny State: Why New Yorkers Should Be Allowed to Drink Booze in Public

There are far greater threats to our safety than drinking alcohol in public.

There’s nothing quite as pleasurable as cracking open a bottle of bubbly to share with your friends in a public park while soaking in the hot summer rays. That was the scene last weekend as a group of cheerful, shirtless 30-something year old men lay basking in the sun at Hudson River Park surrounded by lavish cheese and fruit platters and a bottle of champagne.  Sadly, their fun was short-lived.

Within minutes of peacefully perching on the soft grass, four New York park rangers swooped in, confiscated their one measly bottle of booze and issued each of them a fine for committing the “atrocious crime” of drinking in public, reinforcing to all those who observed that enjoying a sunny picnic day in the park, bottle in hand, is merely a pipe dream.

That’s right - New York City, which boasts to be one of the most “liberated” and greatest metropolises in the world, does not allow its residents the right to choose to consume any beverage at will, thanks to the state’s open container laws.

Under the New York rules, no person shall consume an open container holding alcohol, or possess one with the intent to drink in any public place. It is an offence that can be charged as either a misdemeanor under the city park rules and regulations or as a violation under the Administrative Code. The laws vary depending on where and when you’re drinking and don’t make a lot of sense.  For example, you can’t drink alone in a public place like a park or sidewalk, but a “block party, feast or similar function for which a permit has been obtained” is fair game! In fact, even in prohibited drinking areas, authorities often just look the other way if you happen to be from the right demographic.

And yet, drinking alcohol in public remains the most frequently issued criminal court summons in New York City comprising the most citations over the past decade.  In 2012, officers issued close to 120,000 summonses for this offense, making it one of the 10 most frequent arraignment charges and the only non-criminal violation in the top 10, according to NYCLU.

Other reports show the enforcement system is marred with racial disparities and targets minorities.  In 2012, New York Judge Noarch Dear made headlines when he found, after analyzing citations of Brooklyn residents, that more than 85 percent of the open container summonses were given to Blacks and Latinos and only four percent were issued to white people, Gothamist reported.  In his judgment he wrote:

“Over the several years that I have been sitting in Brooklyn Criminal Court arraigning people for open container violations, every single defendant was either Black or Latino. As hard as I try, I cannot recall ever arraigning a White defendant for such a violation.”

Consequently, he held that before issuing a court summons, police need to be held to a higher standard of certainty that the drink’s alcohol content exceeds 0.5 percent, the threshold under the city’s open container laws; the previous “sniff test” would no longer be sufficient.  Noach also underscored that the practices and policies of the NYPD must be scrutinized and immediately stopped if found to be discriminatory, NY Times reported.

Yet, almost two years on from the decision, not a lot has changed.  Enforcement officers continue to selectively issue summons for public drinking increasing their opportunities for profiling and to check for warrants on unrelated issues. The flawed system has infuriated locals, the homeless and those residing in housing projects who say they are routinely harassed by police about the contents of their plastic containers.

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