Is it illegal to drink beer on your front porch?

What a silly question, right? What right do the Metropolitan Police have to tell you that you can't sit on your stoop and enjoy a beer, or a glass of wine, or whatever pleases you?

Well, in the past, some MPD officers have thought that they could charge you with POCA – Possession of an Open Container of Alcohol – if you did that, right there in front of your own home. I was dismayed to hear, at the PSA 302 (Columbia Heights) meeting on February 12, 2009, an MPD sergeant assert exactly that, noting only that “the law isn't enforced”.

Sorry, sergeant: it's not so. It was, once, maybe, depending upon an extreme interpretation of the POCA law. This turned into a big District dispute in 1997, when overzealous police used this law to harass residents drinking beer or wine on the front porches of their homes.

Here's the POCA law:

DC Code § 25-1001. Drinking of alcoholic beverage in public place prohibited; intoxication prohibited.
(a) Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c) of this section, no person in the District shall drink an alcoholic beverage or possess in an open container an alcoholic beverage in or upon any of the following places:
   1. A street, alley, park, sidewalk, or parking area;
   2. A vehicle in or upon any street, alley, park, or parking area;

This is to prohibit your neighborhood alcoholics from making our streets, sidewalks, and public parks into drinking areas. Fair enough. But how does your front porch come under this regulation?

This has to do with a topic I've mentioned elsewhere: that many DC streets are, on paper, wider than they are in actuality, as if anticipating adding more lanes sometime in the future. This is commonplace in Mount Pleasant, where side streets south of Park Road are commonly 90-foot rights of way. Take out 30 feet for the actual roadbed, and 12 feet on either side for sidewalk, and there's 36 feet left over. On either side of the road, 18 feet from the sidewalk is actually, legally, “public space”, coming under a battery of special regulations. Front porches commonly extend out into this “public space”. Similarly, in Columbia Heights, a number of residential streets east of 14th Street, including Newton, Oak, and Otis, for example, are 70-foot rights of way. Take out the 30 feet of roadbed, and 10 feet on either side for sidewalks, and 10 feet of these residential front yards are “public space”, though fenced off and treated as private front yards.

It seems that, in 1997, the police decided that porches built out onto such so-called “parkings” (the name meaning not that they were for parking cars, but that they should be kept as parkland) were fair game. Most famously, a woman with a glass of wine on her front porch in the 1500 block of Q Street Northwest was arrested, and became known as the “Chardonnay Lady”.  Other residents of the Dupont Circle area were later charged with POCA for having alcoholic beverages on their front porches, as the police ignored the outrage caused by that first arrest. This seems to have been part of a “zero tolerance” sweep, as some police think that if they strictly enforce every law they can think of, harassing even innocent residents, then robbers and burglars will be intimidated into good behavior. (Not so: robbers and burglars are perfectly happy to see the police focus their attention on minor offenders, leaving them free to do their more serious crimes. But all those arrests make the police, frustrated in their inability to catch real criminals, feel as if they're doing something useful.)

Arresting residents for having drinks on their front porches was clearly not the intent of the law, and Councilmember Carol Schwarz led the effort to close this loophole that allowed the police to harass residents. The following text was added to the DC Code in 1998:

§ 25-1001(b) Subsection (a)(1) of this section shall not apply if drinking or possession of an alcoholic beverage occurs:
(1) In or on a structure which projects upon the parking, and which is an integral, structural part, of a private residence, such as a front porch, terrace, bay window, or vault; and
(2) By, or with the permission of, the owner or resident.

Note the reference to “the parking”, which is the “public space” I described above, and which is the loophole taken by the police to make our front porches qualify as “public places”. This closes off that loophole, and ever since then the answer is yes, you can have a beer on your front porch, even if it happens to be a “parking” and lies on “public space”.

What if you're in your front yard, and your front yard is a “parking”? Well, then you're in trouble. But maybe our Metropolitan Police will figure out that harassing residents is not, in fact, an effective anti-crime measure. Not all of them have, as this PSA 302 sergeant illustrates. Our police have to realize that they're supposed to be guardians of the public, and not guard dogs riding herd on the public, as if we're inmates of an enormous open-air prison. Some of them have difficulty with that distinction.

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Page created February 15, 2009