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What is the ABC Law in California?

F. Michael Ayaz

To participate in modern society, it’s necessary to be aware of the various regulations and laws that apply. This is especially true for those interested in running a business. Even the most popular, groundbreaking business idea can fall apart if the proper procedures aren’t followed. Sadly, you could end up losing large amounts of money in the process. One of the types of law that business owners in California should pay particularly close attention to is ABC law. This refers to the laws and regulations of alcoholic beverages.

The purpose of laws like these is to ensure that there is some measure of control in regards to the sale of alcohol, such as dictating what sorts of products can be offered, ensuring that minors are unable to purchase those products, and determining which businesses are eligible for a liquor license. However, the individual details can vary greatly from state to state.

In California, the department responsible for creating and enforcing ABC legislation is the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The ABC department is actually a government agency, and it’s been a part of California’s legal scene for many years. In fact, the ABC was first made effective on January 1st of 1955 as the result of a constitutional amendment. Prior to this date, the task of regulating alcohol had been assigned to the State Board of Equalization, a department tasked with the collection of state taxes.

What Are The ABC Liquor License Laws in California?

While the scope of the ABC may seem quite broad, it is divided into three distinct areas, the first of which is licensing. This branch determines what sorts of requirements are necessary to allow for someone to be eligible to sell alcoholic beverages and what procedures they should follow to prove as much. This includes everything from the forms themselves and the content requested within them to the specific deadlines and waiting periods that make up the process. Both applications for new liquor licenses and requests for a transfer of license initially fall under this category. Some applications are fairly straightforward and can be approved by non-sworn Licensing Representatives, but occasionally some cases require more scrutiny.

The second area is the administration, which involves weighing on those more complex cases. If a license for the sale of alcohol is denied, and the applicants request an appeal, they can attend a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge to plead their case. In some cases, applications will be granted with a caveat imposing additional restrictions, such as limited hours of operation or the successful completion of a probationary period.

The final area is compliance. This is the branch focused on ensuring that those who have been granted the right to sell liquor continue to follow regulations after their application has been approved. The ABC has peace officers who are instructed to conduct routine inspections of businesses at random intervals to ensure this is still the case and have the ability to make arrests when the situation calls for it. In addition to losing their licenses, those found in violation of ABC laws may face additional consequences, such as having to pay hefty fines. That said, they, too, are given the opportunity to have a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.

What are the ABC Licensing Steps in California?

The first step towards being granted the ability to sell alcohol within the State of California is the acquisition of an ABC license. However, this is not a simple process. For starters, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control actually offers over 70 different types of ABC licenses. Some of these are specifically meant for the manufacturers of alcoholic products. As such, they would not be relevant to a business owner seeking to serve alcohol to patrons that visit the establishment. Even so, the sheer quantity and variety can be overwhelming. Given the amount of work that goes into submitting an application and successfully acquiring a license, it’s crucial that you ensure you’re applying for the right thing.

There are several factors that you must take into account when determining which license to seek out. For instance, what sort of products you wish to sell. There is a big difference between obtaining a license that enables the sale of beer and wine versus one that allows for the sale of distilled spirits. Depending on the expectations associated with the type of business you own, it may be more beneficial to invest in a full liquor license that covers both. However, these are likely to be more expensive than licenses that are limited to beer and wine. If you’re looking to narrow down your scope even further, you could purchase a license that is limited exclusively to beer.

Another crucial factor that can influence what sort of license you require is whether you intend for the beverages to be consumed at your place of business. Licenses that provide for the consumption of the goods within the premises are referred to as on-sale. Alternatively, if you intend for your clients to take their purchases with them and consume them elsewhere, you would be seeking out an off-sale license instead. It’s an easy enough conclusion that an on-sale license would be the appropriate choice for a venue like a nightclub or a bar, where people are anticipating being able to drink on location. However, an on-sale license would also be required at a hotel’s ballroom or even a museum if people’s intention is to imbibe while on the property. An off-sale license would be better suited for places exclusively focused on sales over entertainment, such as a gas station or liquor store.

Finally, additional considerations have to be made based on the type of location. For example, licenses for places that also serve food are considered separate from those at a membership-restricted club. California provides several different categories of licenses depending on the kind of business you own. There are even specific licenses that allow for the sale of alcohol aboard a boat or an airplane. In some cases, these licenses aren’t needed year-round. If such a circumstance applies, business owners can seek out a seasonal license, which is only active at certain times of the year.

Despite the sheer quantity of licenses available, some are much more common than others. Within the state of California, the types of licenses that are most often issued include:

  • Type 20: Off-Sale Beer and Wine
  • Type 21: Off-Sale General
  • Type 41: On-Sale Beer and Wine – Eating Place
  • Type 47: On-Sale General – Eating Place
  • Type 48: On-Sale General – Public Premises

Even with that in mind, it can be difficult to be certain that the license you’ve opted to pursue is the appropriate one. That’s why it’s critical to work with an attorney well-versed in California’s liquor laws. Regardless of what kind of business you own and what kind of service you wish to provide, with assistance from an expert in California ABC law, you’ll be able to locate the ideal license for you.

What Does It Take to Get a Liquor License in California?

Once you’ve determined which type of license you wish to apply for, you still have to go through the process of acquiring one. This starts with a meeting between yourself and an ABC staff member, who will then provide you with the necessary paperwork and inform you of any applicable fees. During this time, you may also be asked to fulfill some additional pre-application requirements, such as displaying a Public Notice of Application at your place of business in a clearly visible location or informing all people residing within a certain radius of your intentions. You’ll also have to ensure you have the appropriate zoning permits to accommodate a liquor license.

After the pre-application stage is complete, you’ll need to mail your application to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. They will then forward copies of your application to various other local officials. These may include members of the police department, sheriff’s department, city council, city planning, or even the district attorney. The purpose of this step is to ensure that granting you the license will not result in a significant detriment to the community. If there is any reason to believe that granting you a liquor license could result in increased crime in the area or result in the creation of a public nuisance, your application may be promptly rejected.

ABC staff will also conduct their own investigations to verify that you are indeed eligible for the license. This includes ensuring that all the paperwork was filled out correctly, that no fraud was committed in the process. If an error in your forms is accidental, that can be enough to disqualify you. Investigators also seek to ascertain that the business owner does not have a problematic past that could influence their integrity as a purveyor of alcoholic substances, such as an extensive police record or a history of chronic alcohol abuse. Even a misdemeanor could be of consequence. If you have committed a felony within the past few years, it may be very difficult for you to obtain a liquor license.

During this time, it’s possible that an additional outside party may submit a formal protest to prevent you from obtaining the right to sell alcoholic beverages. There are several reasons why community members might be against the introduction of alcohol into the neighborhood. If your business is located near a facility that could be easily disrupted by such a change, like a school or church, that could be sufficient grounds to reject your application. Protesters may also argue that your business will become a local nuisance to those already established in the area.

All of this is taken into consideration as the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control staff conducts a final review to determine whether or not there are significant reasons why your business should not be granted an ABC license. After the final review, you will either receive your new license or be ushered into the appeals process, where you can request a hearing to contest any issues brought against you.

In some cases, the license you seek may not be currently available through the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The reason for this is that since 1939, the state of California has imposed a strict limit on the number of licenses that can be active at any given time. Limiting the amount ensures that there won’t be an over-saturation of the vendors. However, it also means that licenses are more difficult to obtain and more valuable. If there are no new licenses available, you can purchase an existing license from a willing seller. However, keep in mind that you may have to account for an increased price in your budget if you decide to go this route. Additionally, you will still have to process your transfer of license through the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and undergo the same vetting to ensure your eligibility.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Liquor License in California?

The exact length of time will vary from case to case, as an application involving a complicated criminal history or the introduction of protests will certainly take much longer to review. However, there are some deadlines and waiting periods that are fairly standard across the board. For starters, you are required to post your Public Notice of Application for a total of 30 days, meaning that no decision can be made regarding your application until that time has passed. This applies to both new applications and license transfers.

Beyond the required posting period, the investigations necessary to thoroughly screen the applicant take time. On average, this portion of the process takes between 45 to 65 days. That includes the time necessary to send out copies of the application to the relevant parties, conduct the appropriate research, and submit any details worth scrutinizing back to the ABC staff. Additional steps, such as conducting the final review, will further lengthen the process.

Most applications for new licenses are completed within 90 days, while person to person transfers average about 75 days. However, that’s assuming that no additional information or extenuating circumstances have been found. Such challenges could add substantial delays to your timeline. This is why business owners are encouraged to be flexible in regard to scheduling any grand openings or alcohol-related events at their establishment.

Of course, if the application is rejected altogether, you’ll be facing a much longer timeline as you head into the cycle of hearings. Should you choose to move forward with an appeal, a hearing will be scheduled within 60 days. This first hearing is public and presided over by an administrative law judge of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. After the hearing, the judge has 30 days to make a decision. If your application is once again rejected, you can submit another appeal within 40 days. This then gets elevated to the ABC Appeals Board, who are given 120 days to make their decision. If the Board rejects you, you can still appeal within 30 days of said rejection. The case is then elevated to the highest power concerning ABC law, the California Supreme Court. It should be noted that the court does not have any deadlines dictating when a final decision is due.

What Are the Drinking Laws in California?

If you’ve already gone through the extensive process of securing an ABC license for your business, you still need to ensure you are operating in compliance with the drinking laws of California. Otherwise, you might be charged by ABC investigators and could lose the license you worked so hard to obtain. While the list of drinking laws in California is extensive, here are some of the ones you should keep to the forefront of your mind:

  • Minimum Age of Staff
    Per the State of California, staff serving alcohol must be over 18. Minors can sell alcohol if it’s being consumed off the premises as long as a manager is on-site.
  • Patron Limitations
    It’s fairly common knowledge that businesses cannot sell alcohol to individuals under the age of 21. However, they are also prohibited from selling alcohol to anyone considered “obviously intoxicated” or who is known to have a history of alcohol abuse.
  • Driving Under the Influence
    Another well-known drinking law in California dictates that inebriated individuals cannot legally operate a motor vehicle. While the specific limits vary based on age and prior records, the fact of the matter is that the penalties for drinking and driving can be very severe, especially if the driver is involved in a traffic accident. As a business owner, you might question such a law’s relevance in an environment where you, as an individual, are behaving safely. However, there is precedent in the state of California for an employer to be found responsible for an employee’s drinking. If the employer provides alcohol to employees, and one of those employees then drives drunk, the employer could be found liable.

Contact Our Firm to Learn More About ABC Laws in California

Choosing to pursue an ABC license and serve alcohol at your establishment can be a great way to grow your business and attract more patrons. However, if you don’t proceed with care, the process can be far more complicated, expensive, and punishing than you realize. That’s why it’s important to have a legal expert well versed in the various complexities of California ABC law, including everything from the initial application to long term compliance. The attorneys at Blake & Ayaz have years of experience with alcohol beverage compliance in the State of California and can address any questions or concerns you might have, whether you’re just starting to explore the possibility of selling alcohol on your property or find yourself facing a complex legal challenge. For more information, simply call the offices of Blake & Ayaz at 714-364-2198.

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