Manhattan recently decriminalized open containers in public spaces. Those sipping in the streets will no longer take up room in jails, though they may still be ticketed and fined.
The city’s club kids can enjoy their drinks outside. Wealthy people are pleased to cork their wine and bring it home. Homeless people, often victims of such laws, are likely dubious that the regulation will actually favor them.
The Big Apple’s politicians have made a step in the right direction. They’ve stopped the practice of baptizing citizens as criminals for having libations in public.
Why was that ever illegal?
Honestly, I had assumed that this law came from Puritanical values. In researching the history of open container laws, however, a much more complicated story was revealed.
Traditional U.S. laws promoted the arrest of “drunkards and vagrants” in public. This was obviously problematic, as the definition is unclear and allows for much preference in enforcement. It was the poorer and, often, blacker folks who were most likely to actually be charged.
In attempts to rectify the discrimination, the law evolved into no drinking in public. Period. The enforcement issue, however, wasn’t fixed. In one study of Brooklyn, it was revealed that 85 percent of open-container charges were given to Black and Latino people and 4 percent given to White people. It is estimated that 36 percent of the borough is White.
Aside from the enforcement problem, the law itself incriminates anyone with nowhere private to go. Therefore, homeless and drifters are still unduly punished, simply for lack of options.
The laws around open containers—in cars and public— are complex and can vary town by town. This is where it gets interesting. In several states, it’s legal to drink as a passenger in a car. In Mississippi, it’s actually permissible to drink while you’re driving.
Before my soapbox, it’s relevant to note that these laws likely evolved separately of each other. Indeed, cars don’t carry the same historical context as public spaces. How cars are defined under the law is still being explored (public space? private?). Therefore, comparing them isn’t apples-to-apples, but still demonstrates a disappointing phenomenon. The fact that there exist states where you can legally drink in a car but not in public (Virginia & Connecticut), exhibit an obvious lack of logic.
Those without private property are systematically punished — not only by the law enforcement — but by the law’s existence. Theoretically, a person sipping a beer in a park in Mississippi could be arrested, while their counterpart behind the wheel of a car could be let go.
The fallible judgment of law enforcement is becoming widely recognized (and hopefully, slowly remedied). It’s a different issue, however, when the law diction itself promotes bias.
This change for the city of Manhattan is one microcosm of our nationwide struggle between perceived “civil liberty” and perceived “safety.” It’s happening across all fronts: the backdoor to Apple products, the TSA in airports, the restricting of gun laws, etc. In this scenario, it would seem that civil liberty has won a small battle, especially given that there lacks hard evidence to correlate public drinking and violent crime.
Therefore, I applaud New York City for recognizing that this policy is unjust and allows for too much discretion on the part of a prejudiced law enforcement system. There should not exist laws which are discriminatory and fundamentally against the will of the people. To my experience, open container laws demonstrate such an instance.
Marlo Spieth writes and does outreach for Avvo, a legal advice service.