Old Enough To Drink. And Sue.

(AP (file))
Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Here is the story of a guy with too much time on his hands – and, apparently not enough beer. A young fellow named McReynolds, who was old enough to drink, walked into a state-run liquor store in Utah a few years ago accompanied by an even younger person who perhaps was not. McReynolds, whose first name currently escapes us and Google, picked out his booze, came up to the cashier and showed his valid I.D. But the clerk refused to sell him the liquor because McReynolds' friend didn't look of age and didn't have identification that proved otherwise.

If you were McReynolds, what might you have done? Gone to another liquor store maybe? Left the friend in the car the next time? What McReynolds did was sue in federal court, claiming that he had a constitutional due process right to be sold liquor when he presented the proper identification. The lawsuit was brought in February 2005. Last week, two years later, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively ended the case by ruling, surprise surprise, against McReynolds.

According to the federal appeals court, there is no so-called "liberty" interest in purchasing liquor from a government-run store and, even if there were, the deprivation of that "interest" in McReynolds' case wasn't so permanent and serious that it warranted intervention by the courts. In other words, the judges said, McReynolds was free to simply walk out of that one store and try again at another store. And, for good measure, the panel noted that a victory for McReynolds would have put liquor clerks all over the state in a litigation-unfriendly position.

"Contrary to plaintiff's hyperbole," the unanimous panel concluded, McReynolds was "not accused of a crime; he was merely refused service because he entered a liquor store with a companion who, lacking proof of age, gave [the clerk] a reason to believe an illegal purchase could be in the offing. If denying service for lack of required identification were tantamount to criminal accusation, the proper enforcement of liquor laws would generate a mountain of defamation cases against conscientious liquor store clerks around the country."

What is amazing about this whole story isn't just that it made it as far as it did. It's also fairly unbelievable that the fight generated an eight-page ruling from a federal appeals court whose judges somehow managed to avoid any semblance of humor or wit and who turned into dense, technical legalese what is in the end a really short and easy story. I'm sure McReynolds is disappointed. Next time I see him, I am going to buy him a shot.