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Who Taught You to Drive?

Border-crossing with N.H. booze is illegal, but only on paper

A billboard on Route 125 in Haverhill lures customers to New Hampshire liquor stores. A billboard on Route 125 in Haverhill lures customers to New Hampshire liquor stores. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Peter DeMarco
January 31, 2010

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Rick Comeau, manager of Shamrock Liquors in Haverhill, wasn’t happy when Massachusetts instituted a sales tax on alcohol last summer. But what upsets Comeau even more are the billboards plastered across his city that encourage people to buy their alcohol in tax-free New Hampshire, just a few miles away.

“They have a picture of a shopping carriage on the billboard and it’s filled with liquor bottles,’’ Comeau said. “How is it that they’re allowed to market and advertise that? Transporting alcohol over state lines is illegal, and they’re enticing’’ Massachusetts residents to do it.

Comeau may be bitter about losing business, but he’s telling the truth when it comes to state law. It is illegal to buy so much as a six-pack of beer in New Hampshire and bring it into Massachusetts without a special permit, even if the beverage is for personal consumption.

The same goes for wine and hard alcohol: Not a drop is supposed to cross the state line in your car unless you have a permit from the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission stating the exact amount you intend to bring into the Bay State.

The law has been in place since the end of Prohibition in 1933, and violators can be punished with fines of $100 to $1,000, and/or up to a year in jail - for bringing a six-pack across the border.

At least, that’s what the statute says. In reality, almost no one follows the law. Most people don’t even know it exists.

As with restrictions against jaywalking and spitting on the sidewalk, the “import’’ law is a statute that police realistically can’t enforce, said Amesbury Police Lieutenant Mark Gagnon.

“I don’t think you’ll probably find a case in the last 25 years anywhere in the Commonwealth where someone has gone to jail for transporting alcohol. I don’t see it,’’ Gagnon said.

“If one of our officers stopped a homeowner here in Amesbury . . . I don’t think anyone would take action other than maybe to tell them there is a law on the books, and to update them and let it go at that.’’

State Police said they focus on drunken drivers and open-container violations, and would cite drivers for breaking the import law only if it was clear they had purchased large quantities of alcohol for commercial use or resale without a license.

“Are we going to camp along the border in the hope that we’re going to see evidence of someone carrying a closed container of alcohol into Massachusetts for personal consumption? That would be ludicrous,’’ said David Procopio, a State Police spokesman. “That would not be intelligent policing. The public is better served by us utilizing our resources to patrol roadways looking for erratic drivers, impaired drivers, getting drug dealers off the street, things like that.’’

Still, ABCC officials said Massachusetts residents should be obeying the law, as obscure as it is, and pointed to the agency’s website, www.mass.gov/abcc, where a form for the special permit can be downloaded. Just 168 special permits were issued last year, according to ABCC records, and the list includes alcohol brought into Logan Airport from overseas. The number of Massachusetts residents buying alcohol at New Hampshire state liquor stores alone is in the thousands, according to Granite State officials.

Just why is it illegal to bring alcohol across state lines? Officials from both the ABCC and its overseeing body, the state treasurer’s office, declined to comment on the issue.

The best explanation came from Brian Harkins, reference supervisor at the Social Law Library in Boston, who unearthed a legislative report from 1933 on the creation of state alcohol laws.

The report doesn’t specifically say why lawmakers passed Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 138, Section 2, which bans importation in the first sentence. But it’s clear that they’d seen enough crime and violence under Prohibition to convince them that strict control over alcohol was the way to go.

“Because of the inherent evils to some persons in the use of alcoholic beverages, this commodity cannot be classed with the usual and everyday commodities of trade and commerce,’’ reads the report. It goes on to say that alcohol controls need to be stronger than any “that have ever been attempted hitherto in this Commonwealth.’’

Times have changed. You’re not exactly undermining the government by buying a case of Bud Light in Plaistow, or a bottle of wine from a Rhode Island vineyard.

Import permits do create revenue for the state. The base fee is $1, with additional charges of 11 cents per gallon of beer, 55 cents per gallon of wine, 70 cents per gallon of champagne, and $4.05 per gallon of hard liquor. But again, if so few people apply for such permits, how much of a boon or benefit to the state can they really be? What’s more, if you received the alcohol as a gift, all fees are waived.

A second law was passed in 1933 regarding the transportation of alcohol for personal use. This one strictly limits the amount of alcohol you can transport while inside Massachusetts. It’s illegal - punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 or up to six months in jail - to carry more than a gallon of hard liquor in your car without a permit. That’s roughly five 750-milliliter bottles. The limit for wine is about 15 bottles (technically, 3 gallons), and the limit for beer is about nine cases (technically, 20 gallons). As with the first law, hardly anyone knows about it.

Laws for transporting alcohol vary because states were allowed to concoct their own rules following Prohibition. In New Hampshire, you can bring up to 3 quarts of alcohol into the state before needing a permit, said Eddie Edwards, chief of enforcement and licensing for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. There’s no limit as to how much you can carry in your car while inside the state.

As for bringing in alcohol from Canada or Mexico, the federal government is extremely lenient, imposing no limit so long as the liquor is for personal use, according to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (www.ttb.gov). However, you must abide by the importation rules of the state you enter, which may limit the amount you can carry, and pay federal duty and excise taxes based on the type and amount of alcohol you’re bringing into the country.

Somerville resident Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’

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