Monday, February 18, 2013

Beverage Battles in Boise (and Beyond)

Infused liquors have been gracing modern cocktail menus for some time now; in fact, they're so well-established that the New York Times and Martha Stewart were on the bandwagon years ago. But earlier this month, bartenders in Boise found their happy hours turned upside down, when the Idaho Alcoholic Beverage Control Unit confiscated their flavor-enhanced spirits during routine inspections.

The reason for the raids on basil-flavored vodka and bacon-infused whiskey? Idaho Statutes § 23-921, which says, "It shall be unlawful for any licensee to sell, keep for sale, dispense, give away, or otherwise dispose of any liquor in the original containers or otherwise than by retail sale by the drink." Police Lt. Russ Wheatley told local media, "From our perspective, [bars] have to sell liquor by the drink...You can't take it out of a bottle, replace it and then sell it again. That is illegal. This is really a consumer protection issue. We don't know what people are putting in those bottles." Wheatley noted that no bar owners were issued citations for their offending concoctions, but could face legal consequences during future inspections for subsequent violations.

Of course, not every state takes such a strict stance against serving liquor infusions. In fact, each state regulates alcoholic beverages a little bit differently. So keeping track of the minutiae of local sales laws, dram shop liability, and even "happy hour" regulations can be a dizzying endeavor. Luckily, a number of government websites maintain 50-state surveys of various alcohol-related legislation.

  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism maintains APIS: Alcohol Policy Information System. It's a large web portal of current alcohol-related laws which also traces their evolution over time. Topics include the regulation of beer, wine and liquor sales, restrictions on Sunday sales, and open container laws. The tab navigation under each topic allows users to view a chart of the most current data (including specific state code citations), a timeline of changes to the law since the 1990s, and a handy map display of the state laws.
  • Digest of Impaired Driving and Selected Beverage Control Laws (2012) is published biennially by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Unsurprisingly given its pedigree, the 500+-page report focuses on impaired driving laws, but also summarizes dram shop laws (i.e., liability of bars and liquor stores for providing alcohol to someone who later causes injury) and happy hour restrictions.
  • Similar overviews of state drunk driving laws can be found at the National Conference of State Legislatures' Alcohol Impaired/Drunk Driving page.

50-state surveys are a useful tool for comparing a legal topic across all U.S. states. They can be found in LexisNexis, Westlaw, and free on the web; the easiest method to locate a survey on a particular topic is by searching the online Subject Compilations of State Laws library in HeinOnline (the print version is also available in our Reference collection). For help finding a 50-state survey on this or any other topic, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Friend or FOIA

On Friday, the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) posted a new interactive tutorial about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The CALI lesson provides an overview of the federal statute, which details the basic right of the American public to obtain access to federal agency records (subject to certain disclosure exemptions). Author Phillip Sparkes of Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law outlines the various requirements and exclusions within the current version of the statute, which has been amended several times since its original enactment in 1966.

The new CALI lesson is particularly timely, as controversy continues to swirl around the release last Monday of a U.S. Department of Justice white paper (PDF) which described the legal justification for ordering deadly "drone strikes" against American citizens who hold senior positions within the global terrorist organization al-Qaeda. NBC News obtained a copy of the undated sixteen-page memorandum, but pointed out that the official DOJ Office of Legal Counsel documents which it summarized remain classified.

However, that isn't due to a lack of effort on the part of the media and government watchdogs: the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union fought for nearly three years to obtain the more detailed OLC legal analysis with the help of FOIA. After the Justice Department rebuffed their requests, citing national security concerns, the organizations sued in federal court to compel disclosure. On January 3, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon declared that she was "stuck" at the conclusion that the DOJ had not violated FOIA by withholding the requested materials, ultimately stating in her opinion, "I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for its conclusion a secret."

Under mounting pressure after the NBC News story, the White House agreed to release the still-classified materials to the Intelligence Committees of the U.S. Congress. Committee members expressed frustration that their staff were still prohibited from viewing the documents, and that several of the items sought in the FOIA lawsuit were not included.

Only time will tell if the DOJ's drone strike materials will ever see the light of day, but many FOIA requests are much more successful (for statistics, check out In fact, DOJ (as well as most other executive agencies) maintains an online "FOIA Library" of frequently-requested documents. The DOJ also publishes a comprehensive Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, which can be read online or in the library's Reference Documents collection.

If you'd like to test your FOIA know-how with the new CALI lesson, but have not yet created an account on their website, visit the Academic Technologies' software download page (NetID login required) to obtain the Duke Law School authorization code. Once registered with the CALI site, students can access more than 900 online tutorials on a wide variety of legal topics. For help with accessing CALI lessons, or for more information on federal or state FOIA laws, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Legal Lessons from Lady Gaga

This week, the blogosphere was buzzing with gossip about a foul-mouthed deposition given by pop star Lady Gaga. Although the entertainer's former personal assistant filed the labor lawsuit in question way back in December 2011, excerpts of the August 2012 deposition didn't surface until last week. The NY Post was the first to publish highlights of the six-hour interview, in which Lady Gaga blasted her ex-employee as an incompetent freeloader, cursed repeatedly at plaintiff's counsel, and insisted on preserving all of her uncensored thoughts for the record: "[I]f you're going to ask me questions for the next five hours, I am going to tell you exactly what [expletive] happened, so that the judge can read on this transcript exactly what's going on."

The ABA Journal and Above the Law spread the salacious story further. But as is common practice within the media, other news outlets quoted the explosive Post excerpts without providing much additional information. So researchers who hoped to read new tidbits about the self-proclaimed "queen of the universe" and her "[expletive] hood rat" "ex-best friend", or even to comb the documents independently, were out of luck.

Fortunately, savvy legal researchers know the way to locate court filings, even when the news doesn't provide a docket number or even the specific court where the suit was filed. The articles provide enough information (plaintiff Jennifer O'Neill's name, defendant Lady Gaga’s real – i.e., legal – name, and the fact that the suit was filed in a federal trial court in New York) to quickly access the docket number and other key information.

As described in the Law Library's research guide to Court Records & Briefs, federal court filings are officially housed in the PACER database. Anyone can register with the website to search and retrieve federal court documents, which are generally available from the mid-1990s to the present. However, PACER access comes at a price – currently $0.10 per page (capped at $3.00 per document retrieved). Justia Dockets provides a free front-end search to PACER, which sometimes includes access to the full text of certain filings. A search here for either plaintiff Jennifer O'Neill or defendant Stefani Germanotta retrieves the official case name, O'Neill v. Mermaid Touring Inc.; the court in which the lawsuit was filed (U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York); and the docket number.

But Justia doesn't provide the documents for this case. So from there, it's a quick trip to Bloomberg Law to follow the steps in our research guide to accessing PACER materials. Lady Gaga's deposition is located as an exhibit attached to plaintiff O'Neill's Counter-Statement of Material Facts dated January 30, 2013. It's an 80-page excerpt [PDF for Bloomberg Law subscribers] of the much-longer deposition, with many pages omitted. But fans and foes alike may enjoy combing through the material for more details of the pop star's life on the road.

Feel like tracking down more information on other trials in the news? Start with our research guide to Court Records & Briefs for guidance, and Ask a Librarian for additional help.