Business/Economy, Featured, Gold Dome, Peter Blake

Blake: Loophole for legal liquor sales rarely used

You could buy beer, wine and liquor in grocery stores now, if the stores wanted you to.

If you belong to Costco, you already can.

Current law permits only one store in any supermarket chain in Colorado to sell alcohol. But they all could — if they were willing to lease floor space to an outside owner. That’s what Costco does.

The law requires not only separate ownership but a separate entrance (for non-members) and a separate checkout counter, according to Daria Serna of the Colorado Department of Revenue.

It’s worth it to gargantuan membership stores to lease space to outsiders. Apparently that’s not the case for ordinary supermarkets like King Soopers and Safeway. So far, research has turned up only one non-membership grocery store with an in-house liquor store not owned by the corporation. Called Alpine Wine & Spirits, it’s located in the City Market (a sister chain to King Soopers) at Vail.

There’s a lot of competition for limited shelf space in grocery stores. The older, smaller ones are especially hard-pressed to make the room needed for regular groceries and household-related merchandise. The newer ones are larger but even they are reluctant to lease space out to a separately owned liquor store.

Most supermarkets are in shopping malls where there already is a separate liquor store. Obviously the bean counters have figured out that, with competition nearby, a liquor lease would not bring in as much income per square foot as direct sales of groceries would.

A group called Colorado Consumers for Choice, backed by the supermarkets, is working up an initiative for the 2016 ballot that would permit all groceries to sell wine, beer and, possibly, stronger liquors. The draft hasn’t been finalized yet and would need to clear its effort with the Title Board and the Colorado Supreme Court, before signatures are gathered.

If voters approve the initiative, we’ll soon find out whether supermarkets can suddenly find space for wine, beer etc. in their existing box stores, or whether they spend a lot of money to expand them.

Alcohol is a high profit item, and Colorado’s restrictive liquor laws are the main reason Trader Joe’s took so many years to come here. But the profit isn’t so high that grocers are willing to lease out their existing space to someone else who would make the money.

* * * *

Senate Bill 6, which would further restrict asset forfeiture in Colorado, is scheduled for its first hearing this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. With any luck it will fare better than similar measures in other states.

SB 6 was laid over for three weeks when it became apparent the tough original version couldn’t even get through the committee.

Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement can take your property before you have been convicted of a crime. Indeed, they can take it without even charging you with a crime.

icon_op_edAbuse was so great that in 2002 the legislature prohibited asset forfeiture by local law enforcement without a criminal conviction, but the law quickly found a way around that little bump in the road. They started taking advantage of looser federal forfeiture laws by calling in federal agents when a lucrative haul loomed.

Under so-called “equitable sharing,” the feds get 20 percent of the assets seized and the locals 80 percent. Attorney General Eric Holder modified this practice somewhat recently, but the loopholes left the practice mostly intact.

SB 6, already softened somewhat, would require law enforcement to at least file charges against owners of property before participating in “equitable sharing.” Also, the property would have to have a value of over $50,000. Law enforcement often prefers smaller seizures because they know the owner would have to spend more on a lawyer than the property is worth.

We can only hope sponsoring Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada, has more luck than cohorts in Virginia and Wyoming who have tried similar bills this winter.

In Virginia, a bill that would prevent seizure of assets in a criminal case until the owner is convicted breezed through the House of Delegates 92-6 earlier this month. With a bipartisan margin like that, you’d think it would pass the Senate too. But it never even made it to the floor, dying in the Senate Finance Committee 9-5.

In Wyoming, a bill would have amended the controlled substances act to require a felony conviction before property believed connected to illegal drug activity could be seized by law enforcement.

The bill blew through the Senate 26-3, and the House 54-6. No problem, right? But law enforcement knows how to find the weak link in any legislative daisy chain. It convinced Republican Gov. Matt Mead to veto the bill a week ago.

With vote margins that large, you might think an override is inevitable. But overrides take on a different political flavor, and members of the governor’s party often stand with him even on bills they may have voted for.

There’s also the question in Wyoming of whether the leadership will even permit an override vote.

It’s clear Woods can’t let up on her bill, even if it reaches Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk. Big leads have a way of evaporating on you when law enforcement is working against you.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes twice a month for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

Send us tips at CompleteColorado@gmail.com.

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