Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Is a man’s stoop his castle?

I have an assortment of comments about a New York Times article about a man in Brooklyn who was ticketed for drinking beer on his stoop.

Kimber VanRy on the steps of his building, where he received a summons for drinking in public.Perhaps you who don’t live in the northeast U.S. don’t understand the concept of a “stoop” as we have it here. The photo accompanying the article (which I've linked as a thumbnail to the right) shows what the stoop is: the set of stairs leading up to the front door, and the landing atop it. But it can’t really convey the feeling of it. One’s stoop is part of one’s home. It’s a bridge between indoors and outdoors, a buffer zone between the house and the street, part of one’s sanctuary that one shares with friends and neighbours and deliverymen. On a hot night, one sits on the stoop and catches a breeze. One chats with folks. The kids play stoopball with their spaldeens. One may entertain visitors on the stoop, never moving them inside, and no slight is intended nor perceived. Romances may play out on the stoop.

Yet, as a bridge, it is certainly somewhat public. The world can see what goes on; there are no secrets on the stoop.

But invade someone’s stoop and you’ll have them to answer to. “Who’s that guy? What’s he doing on our stoop?” “You get offa my stoop right now, before I call the p’lice!”

No, it’s out there, in front of the world, but it’s not part of the world. No one really considers the stoop to be public property.

And that is the crux of the issue:

The city’s open-container law prohibits anyone from drinking an alcoholic beverage, or possessing and intending to drink from an open container containing an alcoholic beverage, “in any public place.” The law defines a public place as one “to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access, including, but not limited to,” a sidewalk, street or park.
“I think this is a real gray area,” said Mr. VanRy, an international sales manager for a supplier of stock film footage, video and music. “I don’t think I was doing anything wrong.”


Mr. VanRy will contest the summons at a court appearance in November by pleading not guilty. He questioned the notion that his stoop is considered a “public place” as defined by the law.

And addressing my comments above:
Steve Wasserman, a lawyer with the criminal practice of the Legal Aid Society, questioned the wording of the law, adding that legal arguments could be made that a stoop is not a place that a “substantial group of persons” can gain access to.

“This is an open question,” he said of the law. “There’s also a larger constitutional question, if a piece of your private property were being treated as if it were a public place. You couldn’t get arrested for drinking that beer in your kitchen. Now you’re sitting on your stoop. The stoop may be more like your kitchen than your sidewalk.”

Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University Law School and an expert in property and local government law, said Mr. VanRy’s summons illustrated the thin line between private and public property. “It’s quite possible to be on private property and in public at the same time,” he said.

But apart from the technical matter of whether the stoop is public or not, there’s the issue of the discretion of the police officers.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said in statement about Mr. VanRy’s summons: “The officer observed a violation. The subject has a right to dispute it.”
And this:
Indeed, last year, a State Supreme Court justice in the Bronx ruled that an apartment building lobby qualified as a “public place” in relation to the open-container law. A police officer had confronted a man who was drinking a beer in the lobby of a building on the Grand Concourse, and Justice Joseph J. Dawson ruled that the officer had probable cause to arrest him.
And this:
Mr. VanRy’s stoop does not have a gate and is set back from the sidewalk by a few feet, and the officer told him that if he were behind a gate on his stoop, he would not have received a ticket.
The point here is whether there was really any value in the officers’ enforcing this law. One might say that it’s their duty to do it, but that’s not really true: police officers exercise discretion all the time, deciding what to push on and what not to, and that’s as it should be. There’s clearly value in addressing situations of unruly behaviour and other problem situations. Was there value in stopping a guy from quietly quaffing on his stoop, regardless of the technicalities of how the space might be classified? I think not.

The details of Mr. VanRy’s tale have fascinated his friends, neighbors, the four lawyers who sent e-mail messages offering advice and Brooklynites who read about the incident on local blogs. The officer who gave Mr. VanRy the summons asked him, for example, what brand of beer he was drinking. “I thought it was strange why it mattered,” Mr. VanRy said.
We might think that the officer had a preference for Brooklyn Lager or Chelsea Checker Cab Blonde, and ticketed Mr VanRy for his dubious choice of Sierra Nevada. More likely, it mattered because the officer was trying to determine whether what was in the bottle was alcoholic. But, really, does it matter so much? If Mr VanRy was lounging peacefully on his stoop, did it make a difference that he was drinking Sierra Nevada and not O’Doul’s Amber? He’d technically be OK with Arizona Green Tea with Ginseng and Honey, but not with Mike’s Hard Iced Tea; fine if his grape juice was Welch’s, yet culpable if it came from Mondavi.

Does that make any sense?

If the problem is that people get drunk and become disorderly or violent, we should address the problem behaviour, not the number of organic molecules in their drink. The troubles with approaching it the wrong way are that it’s capricious (you can be ticketed if you stand on the wrong side of the door frame), it hurts too many harmless and innocent people (the vast majority of people drinking a beer at home will not present any problems to the community), and it doesn’t work (one can down a couple of six-packs and then sit on the stoop drinking lemonade, but one is still, as the Brits say, pissed as a newt).

There are certainly times when prior restraint is in order, but those cases should be identified carefully. If a situation is likely to become volatile, we should do what’s necessary to keep it under control... and that might mean restricting alcohol consumption. But those should be special decisions, not everyday procedure as the cops cruise the streets.

We should get rid of such silly laws.

A final note:

In Mr. VanRy’s posting that night to a message board at, he made a point of mentioning the other officer in the police car, who, Mr. VanRy wrote, “was playing Tetris on his iPod the whole time.”
I’m reminded of a time a few years ago, when some friends and I left a restaurant in Cold Spring after dinner, and sat on the pier for a while, enjoying the Hudson River. As we left the pier we passed a town police car. They’re equipped with Windows laptops, and the officer inside was playing FreeCell.

Well, what else does a Cold Spring police officer have to do at 10:30 on a weeknight?


W.M. Irwin said...

Personally, I think all of these open container laws are at best asinine and at worst an infringement of people's freedoms.

I had jury duty a few months ago. Three of the cases involved DUI charges. In each of them, the defense lawyer made clear to all of the prospective jurors that "drinking and driving" was NOT a crime, but rather drinking to excess (as determined by blood alcohol level)and then driving was.

To me, this carries over into other areas of public life. What's the point of coming down on somebody for sitting on their "stoop" drinking beer, when they could easily go inside and down a lot of hard liquor and then come back outside on the "stoop"? You might say, well, if the police saw that the liquor drinker showed signs of public inebriation, then they could act on that, even without seeing actual public drinking. And I'd agree. But why not apply this same standard to someone drinking a can of beer publicly (not just on their "stoop") as well?

This sort of law appears to give police discretionary powers of arrest that they can selectively apply to some (the "lower elements") while ignoring others (the "upper crust"). We need to get these types of laws off the books!

Katie said...

As a former Brooklynite, I am appalled. Appalled I tell you!!

Anyway... What if Mr. Ray had been standing on the postage size piece of grass some lucky Brooklynites have as a "front lawn"? Hmmmmm....

If you are in your back suburban yard, I assume you wouldn't get a ticket for drinking. But I've heard of someone getting a ticket for drinking in their "front" suburban yard. Is the front yard considered public property? Is this some kind of puritan holdover - you can drink, just don't let the "nice" people see you do it.

Oh, and as a former Broolynite, I only chased people offa my stoop if they weren't bigger and meaner than me. And unfortunately, most of them were.