It’s a normal evening on your North Philadelphia block. You’re chilling on your stoop with your roommate watching a party rage across the street. Some people stand on the opposing porch, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. A car bumping some beats rolls past you. As it cruises away, the noise is replaced by the bass from the apartment across the street as the last of the partiers flicks his cigarette onto the sidewalk and opens the door revealing a quick glimpse of the chaos and commotion inside. You take a sip of beer. Your roommate finishes his and tosses the empty can into the recycle bin. Another Wednesday night.
Just as you rise to follow your roommate inside, the Philadelphia Police drive down the street. The car pauses and suddenly parks. Two officers get out. But instead of approaching the loud party across the street, they approach you. And before you know it, you’re signing your name on an open container citation.
If you think this sounds unbelievable, I hate to tell you that not only is it realistic, but in my case it’s scarily real.
One evening this fall, I decided I would be good and stay in to do work. Having accomplished quite a bit, I decided to take a much needed break and go watch the fourth quarter of a football game at my neighbors. Before I left, I decided I would grab the last of my Blue Moon Pumpkin Ales — courtesy of Foodway’s make-your-own-six-packs.
Having opened it and taken a few sips, I grabbed my keys and headed next door. I stood at the door waiting while one of my neighbors crossed the street to join me on the stoop. As he was opening the front door, the Philadelphia Police pulled up, spotted my beer and climbed the steps, inquiring if we were throwing some kind of party. “No” was our response. But, I thought, if the cops wanted a party all they had to do was follow the bass from the neighbor’s party two doors down.
Tragically, they were not interested in stopping the rampant parties.
As one of the officers pulled out a pad and proceeded to write me a citation for having an open container, she informed me they were being paid by Temple to write these types of citations for the next two hours. So in short, the party two doors down was of little or no concern at the moment, open container violations were. Initially I was outraged about the complete lack of common sense I had just witnessed. But then another issue crossed my mind.
Are you really not allowed to drink on your own stoop? Certainly I was aware that swigging from an open container of Vladimir on a Friday night while walking down the middle of the street was grounds for an open container citation. But a beer on your stoop? What would this mean for stoop chilling?
After all, chilling on your stoop is as American as baseball and apple pie.
My neighbors were just as shocked, not realizing that such a thing was in violation of the law, and having enjoyed many a beer on their stoop.
When I tried researching the matter, the legality seemed to remain largely in question in many cities, which are responsible for making these laws. When I reached out to the Office of Media Relations and Public Affairs for the Philadelphia Police Department, I was told on the phone that according to the city’s open container law, “No person shall consume alcoholic beverages or carry or possess an open container of alcoholic beverages in the public right-of-way.”
When I inquired what constituted the public right-of-way, particularly concerning stoops, I was told that the public right-of-way began with the bottom steps leading onto the sidewalk. Though when I tried to sure up the information via email, I was simply sent an attachment of the open container law and politely told to ask an attorney regarding any questions.
The initial hearing did not restore my faith.
Upon arriving, I was given three options: go to trial, plead guilty or defer guilt and pay $200 and attend a class that would expunge the charge from my record. I took a risk and chose the trial because I had noticed my citation was filled out incorrectly. My name was spelled wrong and the address was more than a block off. I hoped that alone would speak to the ridiculousness of the situation.
Fortunately, common sense did prevail. My case was dismissed without me having to even bring up the misspelling and incorrect address.
The judge was not only fair, but also wise. In addition to realizing the absurdity of the situation, she recognized that public-drinking laws — like many of the violations in court that day — were unevenly enforced and sometimes don’t really address the actual crimes that are committed in Philadelphia every day.
Bri Bosak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BriBosak.