Judge James Whittemore threw out a civil rights complaint filed in 1999 by six wine collectors in Sarasota County. Their suit argued that Florida violated their constitutional right to engage in interstate commerce by preventing them from ordering fine and rare wines that are not available from in-state retailers.
In his ruling, released on July 20, Whittemore said the ban on direct shipping was within "Florida's sovereign authority pursuant to the 21st Amendment," which repealed Prohibition and gave states the right to control the sale and distribution of alcohol within their borders.
The lawsuit argued that Florida law gave in-state businesses an economic advantage over out-of-state firms, thereby violating the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which promotes free trade among the states.
Although licensed Florida vendors can deliver alcoholic beverages to residents' homes, Florida currently bans out-of-state wineries and retailers from shipping alcoholic beverages directly to consumers. It is also illegal for package carriers, such as UPS and Federal Express, to make such deliveries. Violators are subject to felony prosecution and are liable for damages up to three times the market value of the merchandise they brought into Florida.
In Florida, as in most other states, wine must be sold through what is known as the three-tier system, from producers to wholesalers to retailers, and then on to the consumers. Many alcoholic-beverage wholesalers fear their businesses may be threatened by direct sales via phone, catalog or Internet. They argue that the existing system of controls helps prevent minors from buying alcohol and provides a mechanism for collecting state taxes.
"We are very gratified by the decision," said Juanita D. Duggan of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, which opposes direct shipping. "It's a complete victory for the 21st Amendment."
In response, many small wineries argue that they aren't big enough to get wholesale representation in most states and that direct sales are essential to running their businesses. Wine collectors want to be able to buy boutique wines and cult bottlings that can only be purchased through mailing lists, while vacationers to wine country want to ship wine purchases home rather than carrying them.
Tracy Genesen, president of the Coalition for Free Trade, pointed out that Whittemore's ruling acknowledged that Florida law indeed violates the commerce clause. "But the 21st Amendment took precedence [in the judge's opinion]," said Genesen, whose organization provides legal support for many direct-shipping lawsuits. "That provides a good basis for appeal."
The ruling comes on the heels of an April decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a similar case filed in Indiana by a group of consumers. The justices turned down a request to hear the case and let stand a ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit that upheld the Indiana law banning direct interstate shipments.
Genesen expects the Florida ruling to be appealed within 30 days, which would take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.
To learn more about the direct-shipping issue -- and developments in the state legislatures, federal courts and Congress -- check out our Wine Wars package.
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