Can one state enforce another state’s laws that prohibit direct-to-consumer wine shipment from out-of-state retailers while allowing it by in-state retailers? That’s the question posed in a recent New York case.
The New York State Liquor Authority has a rule that prohibits licensees from engaging in “improper conduct.” The liquor regulator argues that direct shipments by retailers that violate other states’ laws constitute improper conduct. It has fined, revoked licenses, and filed charges against New York retailers that it believes have shipped wine illegally to customers in other states. One retailer, Empire Wine, refused to settle and has sued the liquor authority in state court, claiming that the “improper conduct” rule is unconstitutionally vague and that the liquor authority cannot enforce other states’ laws that discriminate against interstate commerce.
Many states continue to prohibit direct shipment from out-of-state retailers. For example, 40 states do not allow New York retailers to ship directly to consumers. This harms consumers, because it is usually out-of state-retailers, rather than wineries, that offer significant savings compared to in-state retailers. In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Alan Wiseman and I identified two different anti-consumer effects of laws that allow out-of-state wineries to ship direct to consumer but prohibit out-of-state retailers from doing so. First, these laws deprive consumers of price savings from buying many bottles online: “Online retailers consistently offered price savings on much higher percentages of the bottles in each year—between 57 and 81 percent of the bottles when shipped via ground and between 32 and 48 percent when shipped via air. Excluding retailers from direct shipment thus substantially reduces—but does not completely eliminate—the price savings available from purchasing wine online.” Second, these laws reduce competitive pressure on bricks-and-mortar wine stores, since they exclude lower-priced out-of-state retailers from the local market. Thus, the laws likely harm consumers who buy from their local wine shops, not just consumers who want to buy online. (The published version of the paper is behind a paywall, but you can read the working paper version at SSRN.)
(Photo credit: http://srxawordonhealth.com/2011/07/11/exercise-in-a-bottle/)