Can You Be Fined for Drinking Beer on a Stoop?

New York City's ambiguous liquor laws are under scrutiny as Brooklyn man fights an open can summons

For lots of New Yorkers, the stoop is simply an extension of their home. It’s not public property, it’s their front yard, their perch from which to observe the city. So it makes sense that Andrew Rausa, a third-year student at Brooklyn Law School, feels the need to contest the summons he got for drinking a beer on his fenced-in stoop the evening of July 4th.

Rausa was with four friends, not all of them drinking alcohol or with an open bottle, on a Boerum Hill stoop when he received the summons for drinking on his stoop. Although Rausa was content to accept the $25 fine at first, he decided to take this issue further and fight the summons on the ground that they were drinking on private property and not in public. This argument might initially feel one-sided, except for the fact that the liquor laws of public drinking in New York City are a labyrinth complicated enough to rival the subway system.

Is it an open container in public that’s illegal? Or is it cool, as long as you don’t see the label? With people given summons seen drinking in a myriad places, from open doorways to drinking in the streets, the decision seems to be up to the police officer issuing the summons rather than a hard and fast rule. Kimber VanRy, a Brooklyn resident who also received a summons for public drinking in 2008, says of the law, “There’s so much interpretation left up to the individual officer. I tell people, honestly, I think you’re going to lose [fighting in court] because it’s written so broadly.”

Only time will tell to see how the debate continues and if this perennially thorny law will change. Until a resolution arrives, those who want to enjoy a drink on their stoop might want to be cautious. “It’s quite possible to be on private property and in public at the same time,” as Richard Briffault, a law professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times. Enjoy your beer indoors for now, at least there's air conditioning inside!