Monday, June 29, 2009

Monday Night in Williamsburg: "A Stoop-ID Tale" with Kimber VanRy at Pete's Candy Store

We are big stoop-sitters, having grown up in houses with stoops in East Flatbush, Gravesend, and Old Mill Basin. This week we've sat on our stoop in Williamsburg every nice day. But we don't drink anything stronger than iced tea or Diet Pepsi and haven't endured the tsuris that Kimber VanRy engagingly discussed tonight a few blocks from our stoop at Pete's Candy Store in "A Stoop-ID Tale," part of Pete's O.C.D. (Open City Dialogue) bi-monthly lecture series.

There were about a dozen or so of in the audience to hear Kimber's story that is probably well-known, giving all the blogosphere and newspaper coverage garnered by his citation last August for drinking a Sierra Nevada beer on the stoop of his Prospect Heights co-op.

Here are links to just a little of the digital and real media ink that he got (OK, this is partially so that we don't have to repeat the story):

"Fighting for the Right to Drink Beer on His Stoop" (The New York Times, September 7, 2008):
In Brooklyn, the borough of the brownstone, few spaces are more sacred than the stoop, the place where the city goes to watch the city go by. Mr. VanRy’s summons, news of which has spread on Brooklyn blogs, message boards and in a community newspaper, The Brooklyn Paper, has stirred debate about the legal status of stoops and stoop drinkers.

New Yorkers who enjoy drinking wine or beer on their stoops are indeed violating the law, according to the police.

The city’s open-container law prohibits anyone from drinking an alcoholic beverage, or possessing and intending to drink from an open container containing an alcoholic beverage, “in any public place.” The law defines a public place as one “to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access, including, but not limited to,” a sidewalk, street or park.

Exceptions include drinking at a block party or “similar function for which a permit has been obtained” as well as premises licensed for the sale and consumption of alcohol. The punishment for violations is a fine of no more than $25 or imprisonment of up to five days, or both.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said in statement about Mr. VanRy’s summons: “The officer observed a violation. The subject has a right to dispute it.”

"Prospect Heights man gets cited for drinking a beer...on his stoop" (Daily News, November 20, 2008:
VanRy got a $25 ticket for drinking a cool brewsky on his stoop in August, and he's taking his case straight to Brooklyn Criminal Court next month.

"If it was a dollar, I wasn't going to pay it ... I hadn't done anything wrong," he said. "My private property shouldn't be construed as public space."

VanRy, 39, was nursing a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and checking his BlackBerry messages on the stoop of the Sterling St. condo building where he owns one unit when a police car pulled up.

"At first I thought maybe [the cop] was asking for an address, said VanRy. "They didn't get out of the car or anything. There was nothing in my mind thinking [they were] stopping because I was doing something wrong."

VanRy said that as one of the cops played a video game on a cell phone, the other wrote him a $25 summons for drinking on the stoop - and allegedly told him not to worry because the ticket would likely be dismissed.

"I was a little confused, because my stoop is well set back," from the street, said VanRy, whose last brush with the law was a speeding ticket 14 years ago.

"I could see if somebody is becoming a public nuisance, walking around and endangering other people; but someone sitting there quietly on their own property is not worth [the NYPD's] time," he said.

"Well, recuuuuuuse me! Judge takes himself off stoop-drinking case" (The Brooklyn Paper [editor Gersh Kuntzman], February 9, 2009)
The long-awaited trial of a man accused of drinking beer on his own stoop will have to wait a few more days, thanks to the stunning recusal of a judge who took himself off the case on Monday because — his words, not ours — my coverage of the trial of the century has been “too good.”

“I read about the case in your paper,” Judge Jerome Kay said, minutes after he stunned a packed Downtown Brooklyn courtroom and made the extremely rare decision to take himself off the summons case against Prospect Heights resident Kimber VanRy, the man who was hit with a violation over the summer for drinking a Sierra Nevada beer on his Sterling Place stoop.

Judge Kay, who lives in Park Slope, said he not only followed the coverage in The Brooklyn Angle, but later walked past VanRy’s building.

“I know that building, I know that stoop, so remaining on the case would give the appearance that I could not be fair, pro or con,” the judge said.

And the judicial finale of Kimber VanRy's long battle against the bureaucracy, reported again by Gersh Kuntzman at The Brooklyn Paper, "Stoop drinker wins his case — but on a technicality!" (February 17, 2009):
Yes, Kimber VanRy is no longer facing a $25 fine for the public drinking summons he received on Aug. 27 for gulping a Sierra Nevada on his front stoop, but Judge Eugene Schwartzwald dismissed the case on Tuesday morning only because it “took too long” to get the case to trial.

“I’m dismissing this on ‘speedy trial’ grounds,” said the judge, using shorthand to refer to plantiffs’ constitutional right to a prompt trial. “This has been going on too long.”

Though he did not reveal how he might have ruled on the merits of the case, Schwartzwald did tell VanRy’s lawyer, Tina Kansas, “You did a nice job on the motion.”

That motion conveyed the substance of VanRy’s challenge to the portion of the city’s open-container law that allows cops to write summonses for any drinking that is done in view of the public, even if the drinking itself is done on private property, such as a front stoop.

VanRy said he was drinking his Sierra Nevada on his Sterling Place front steps, far from the public sidewalk. His summons set off a wide debate over that most iconic of Brooklyn public spaces: the stoop. . .

VanRy hoped that winning the case on the merits would forever prevent cops from ticketing people for a quiet beer on their private steps, so Tuesday’s dismissal was a little unsatisfying.

“It feels a little hollow,” VanRy said. “This dismissal doesn’t allow us to drink on the stoop, which was the purpose of this case.”In the end, Brooklynites should not take VanRy’s “win” as evidence that stoop drinking will be officially condoned by the NYPD, the successful Sierra Nevada lover said. . .

“I’m not sure I’ll drink on my stoop,” he said.

After being introduced by O.C.D. host Jamie Hook (who's close to opening The Cassandra, a triplex art house cinema here in Williamsburg), Kimber told this story in much more detail, with more humor and insight - and yes, he came in clutching a Sierra Nevada beer. (The company got so excited by the free publicity that the CEO and founder contacted the defendant and even got their legal staff to research the law.)

Although Kimber told the story much more funnily than we could describe here - his descriptions of the cops, his attorney, and the scenes during multiple trips to Manhattan and Brooklyn Criminal Court were hysterical - his tale of fighting the system raised some serious issues. Kimber read from the city regulation, and the rule seems overly broad and confusingly vague - and more importantly, the selective enforcement brings up the usual questions of class and race in NYPD dealings with the public on the streets.

(Photo by the great Che Kothari)

Or is the stoop "a public place"? Kimber noted that courts have ruled that valid citations were given to people who drank alcohol in their apartments with the door open on a hot night or were just standing in a public place next to a liquor bottle that they never drank from.

Also important is something we learned early on in law school: never, never, never say anything to the police without an attorney. Kimber didn't have his ID with him so he had to go back to the house to get it - and he could probably avoided the summons if only he hadn't voluntarily returned, because the cops would need a warrant to come into his apartment.

Anyway, it was a fascinating talk - Kimber related the times Mayor Bloomberg's been caught drinking wine in public parks; he discussed the weirdness of the spotlight in both traditional and new media (one blog named him the ninth of "90 Brooklynites to watch in '09; a Queens blog named him one of the year' biggest doofuses) - and the Q&A period afterwards was lively, raising all kind of issues. (What about a gated stoop? Does the gate have to be locked? etc.)

The next OCD lecture, on Monday (the most erudite night of the week, according to host Jamie Hook), July 13 at 7:30pm will feature David Rees, creator of the famous comic “Get Your War On” giving a one-of-a-kind tutorial in how to win at games of chance.

When we got home, we found some evidence that the usual undesirables had been sitting on our very own stoop: a can of Hawaiian Punch. Much as we get nervous when gang members or hipsters sit on our own steps, we figure this individual or bunch must have read about Kimber VanRy's story and so had been keeping their refreshments nonalcoholic to keep one step - or stoop - ahead of the law.

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