For 37 years, Family Beer & Liquor has called East Dubuque, Ill., home.
But owner Tim Althaus acknowledged that customers from across the river account for the bulk of his business.
“The majority of our customers are from Iowa, with Wisconsin and Illinois making up the rest,” he said. “I would say that we would have a very difficult time staying in business if not for our local Iowa customers.”
However, a little-known and rarely enforced law makes it illegal to transport most alcoholic beverages into the state of Iowa.
The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division this month issued an educational bulletin reminding residents about a law regarding the “personal importation of alcoholic beverages”
Tyler Ackerson, of the Alcoholic Beverages Division, said the law prohibits Iowans from purchasing beer or wine in another state and transporting it into Iowa. Small volumes of liquor — up to 1 liter purchased in the U.S. or 4 liters obtained outside the country — can be brought in.
Division officials said this month’s bulletin was prompted by a recent influx of inquiries pertaining to the law, specifically from military veterans wondering whether they were exempt from such restrictions.
Ackerson said the division does not enforce the law, but said a violation would qualify as a serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine ranging from $315 to $1,875.
Local law enforcement officials said the chances of getting pinched for such a violation are slim to none.
Lt. Scott Baxter, of the Dubuque Police Department, said he is familiar with the law. However, he is not aware of any arrests or charges being leveled in his 21 years with the department.
“There is no doubt that it is occurring, especially given our proximity to two other states,” said Baxter. “But it is not among our highest priorities. If we were to enforce it, it would be a big demand on our personnel and manpower level.”
Baxter said investigating and pursuing a violation would present “jurisdictional challenges.” Building a case would involve coordinating with law agencies in the state in which the alcohol was purchased, then shifting the case to another agency once the offender crossed back into Iowa.
The value of the bill has even been questioned by the Alcoholic Beverages Division itself. Ackerson noted the division “didn’t create the law” and, in 2016, tried to get it reversed.
“We brought forth a bill that would have allowed for (the personal importation of alcohol), but the Legislature did not act on it,” he said.
FRUSTRATION IN IOWA
Not everyone is so quick to dismiss the law, however.
Beverly Miller, president of Sid’s Beverage Store in Dubuque, argued that rules regarding alcohol importation may not make a difference in central Iowa. But here in Dubuque, where other states are a short drive away, the lack of enforcement adds up.
“It is a lot of money that is leaving the state,” she said. “I 100 percent believe the law is not being enforced and I think it should be.”
Miller said another law is driving Iowans to purchase their booze in another state.
Under Iowa law, consumers must pay a 5-cent deposit when purchasing carbonated beverages and alcohol. The deposit is refunded when they return the container to a store or redemption center.
“People are driving over to East Dubuque because they don’t want to pay the nickel bottle deposit,” she said. “That has been going on for years.”
Althaus said Family Beer and Liquor relocated to East Dubuque 37 years ago with hopes of benefitting from the bottle-deposit law.
The personal importation law, however, has had little impact on the business.
“To my knowledge, that law has not been enforced locally in all the years I have been with the business,” he said.