ABC Declaratory Rulings – A Modest Proposal Whose Time has Come

By John Hinman and John Edwards

The Problem – New Technology and Process Innovation

Today’s alcoholic beverage industry is marked by technological and process innovation at every level, and in ways that were unfathomable even a decade ago. Information retrieval, accounting systems, ordering and delivery systems, social media and other new technologies pose challenges for regulators around the country attempting to fit new initiatives into statutes and regulations enacted in an earlier era. 

The regulatory challenge usually involves determining what the controlling statute or regulation means in the context of the business facts presented. The problem with quick conclusions is that facts are often not presented clearly or in an orderly fashion, which results in difficulty for both the agency and the business attempting to discern if the new business falls within the permitted activity portions of the ABC Act. 

What a statute or regulation means in the context of approving or prohibiting creative industry programs is always a challenge – new technologies usually do not neatly fit into the narrow legislative and regulatory enactments crafted for a different time. 

That results in a system where approval of new and innovative business concepts, often ones that are permitted by other states or the federal government, are routinely denied, or are undertaken under a cloud, which impacts regulators, investors, managers and licensees.

Many regulators take the position that whatever process or innovation is sought cannot be permitted unless the legislature has expressly permitted it. However, sponsoring legislation is an expensive and time consuming process and new legislative exceptions often create more problems than they solve. 

The Solution – Create a Forum for Program Analysis; NY does it and so can California

We propose a solution where the burden is on the new technology or system developer to prove to the ABC that the system is legal, and to provide an efficient forum for presenting that case.

This was brought home in a recent (January 19, 2017) declaratory ruling by the New York State Liquor Authority approving the Instacart internet marketing platform and product delivery protocols in New York.  The importance of the ruling to Instacart and those using similar marketing platforms and delivery protocols cannot be overstated.

Significant investment of time and money in a marketplace can only be justified by industry member (and service provider) confidence that what they are doing will not threaten the licenses of the participants in the system or, worse yet, expose the participants to criminal charges for violating the state alcoholic beverage laws (for example, all violations of the California ABC Act are statutory criminal misdemeanors, and that could conceivably include liability for aiding and abetting the offense).

New York is one of many states that have a specific alcoholic beverage declaratory ruling procedure.  California, however, has no specific procedure for obtaining rulings on alcoholic beverage business proposals.  The lack of such a procedure hobbles innovation and introduces unjustifiable and unnecessary risk into the process of investing in, and managing, California businesses.  Given the importance of the industry to the State, California’s regulation of alcohol can and should be made more transparent and should provide guidance on which industry members can rely.

Creating a Declaratory Rulings Protocol – it can be done

California has an administrative ruling statute that provides for declaratory rulings (through an agency not used by the ABC). We propose that the authorizing statute be amended to specifically include the ABC, to provide for ABC Appeals Board review of the ABC’s action in accordance with the California Constitution, and to provide for designating rulings as “precedent.”

Here is our proposed language. Please note that the Section 1 exclusion of the ABC from the general Government Code section is what allows the Section 2 inclusion of the ABC into the new procedure that we propose.  That’s how the Government Code works.

Section 1

Government Code Section 11465.10 is hereby amended as follows:

Subject to the limitations in this article, an agency, other than the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, may conduct an adjudicative proceeding under the declaratory decision procedure provided in Sections 11465.10 to 11465.70 of this article.

Section 2

The following sections are added to Article 14 of the Government Code:

Section 11465.80

(a) Any person may file a Petition with the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for a declaratory decision with respect to the applicability to any person, property, or state of facts of any statute or rule enforceable by the Department.

(b) Petitions for a declaratory ruling by the Department shall:

(i) Contain a statement of the declaratory ruling requested;

(ii) Include a concise statement of the state of facts or uncertainty with respect to which a declaratory ruling is required and may include a statement by the petitioner of the outcome sought and the reasons therefor; and

(iii) be filed with the Department and directed to the attention of its General Counsel.

(c) The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control shall reject any Petition for a declaratory decision as to which any of the following applies:

(i) The Petition does not comply with requirements of subsection (b) of this section;

(ii) The decision would substantially and directly prejudice the rights of a person who would be a necessary party and who does not consent in writing to the determination of the matter by a declaratory decision proceeding;

(iii) the Petition presents a matter that is the subject of pending administrative or judicial proceedings.

(d) Unless the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control rejects a Petition pursuant to subsection (c), the Department shall:

(a) Publish the Petition on its website; and

(b) Provide a period of not less than 30 days for interested parties to file comments with respect to the relief requested and a period of not less than 10 days for the petitioner to file responses to the comments of interested parties; and

(e) The Department of Alcoholic Beverage control may, in its discretion, schedule a public hearing on the issues presented by any Petition for a declaratory decision, at which it may permit the introduction of evidence.

(f) The Department shall issue a ruling on the Petition in writing within not less than 80 days after the date of the filing of the Petition.

(g) The Department shall designate each of its rulings on Petitions for a declaratory decision as Precedent and index all such precedents, including any subsequent rulings thereon by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Appeals Board or any court, as precedent pursuant to Government Code Section 11425.60.  The index and all rulings on Petitions for a declaratory ruling shall be published on the Department’s website.

Section 11465.90

The ruling issued by the Department shall constitute a “decision” within the meaning of Bus. & Prof. Code Section 23080.  The Petitioner or any person who filed comments with the Department may appeal the ruling to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Appeals Board pursuant to Bus. & Prof. Code Sections 23080 to 23089.

The Key Concept – Create a body of decisional law - Precedent

The most important word in this proposal is “precedent.” 

Precedents in the purest sense are examples of how the statutes and regulations are applied in actual cases. As precedents are developed they create a body of law that can be relied upon by legal practitioners, industry members and trade associations alike.  This removes uncertainly and provides an avenue for a reasoned consideration of new and innovative proposals against a background of established examples that can be used to guide conduct. 

Please note that under our proposal a petition could not be filed with the ABC after a violation has already occurred and an accusation or other proceeding initiated.  That, as well as assuring that the ABC retains essential discretion to approve or disapprove proposals, assures the integrity of the ABC’s accusation process, and insures that the ABC's other powers are not compromised.

The ultimate result will be a body of published decisions that every industry member and service provider can rely upon in making important investment and business decisions, and a mechanism for seeking illumination in those situations where the answers are unclear.  That would enable continued innovation and provide the kind of certainty that one of the most important industries in California deserves.

It’s a win-win.