Fall brings cozy sweaters, brilliant foliage, football games—and of course, tailgate parties. Sports fans across the nation gather in parking lots to enjoy food, fellowship, and more than a fair share of alcohol. If you’re planning your next tailgate—whether it’s for a pee-wee game or that big NFL match-up—proceed with caution: you just may be breaking the law.
It’s your tailgate, but someone else’s property
Tailgates are typically found in the parking lots of football stadiums. Some partiers rent parking spots while others just pitch a tent anywhere. Do a bit of homework beforehand about the venue before you crack open that first beer.
“Anyone wishing to tailgate should determine whether or not tailgating is permitted on the property,” says attorney Matthew L. Kreitzer of Booth & McCarthy in Winchester, Virginia. “It is always wise to consult with the land owner prior to planning any parties. Property trespassing carries fines or even jail time in some states.”
It’s all about the booze, man
Tailgates typically have plenty of beer on hand, but many states prohibit the open consumption of alcohol in public areas. “One major concern with tailgating parties is the consumption of alcohol,” says Kreitzer. “Open container laws and public intoxication laws may make some of the activities traditionally performed at tailgates subject to criminal sanctions.”
“Tailgate parties themselves are not illegal, but when alcohol consumption is involved, people often find themselves in illegal activity,” says attorney Christian Denmon of Denmon & Denmon Trial Lawyers, a Tampa Bay, Florida, law firm. As he explains, the legality lies entirely on the tailgate location and who owns the property.
“In Florida, for example, we do not have an open container waiver—it is illegal to have an open container on public property, such as on a public university campus or on a public sidewalk,” says Denmon. “There are a few stadiums across the country that are privately owned, so it is up to the owners to allow or not allow fans to have tailgate parties and consume alcohol on their property.”
And, particularly at college football games, there is that ever-present issue of underage drinkers. Generally, only about half of the student body is old enough to drink legally. As a tailgate host, it can become difficult to know whom you should or shouldn’t serve. But it’s worth the effort of finding out: charges of furnishing alcohol to a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor will put a serious damper on your party.
Get to know the rules
At a San Diego Chargers tailgate in 2013, a fan was fined $280 for throwing a football. Jesse Unger was tossing a ball around before the Colts-Chargers game when he was approached by two policemen and told to stop.
Thinking they were joking, Unger continued playing ball and was soon ticketed for violating one of the rules of the city’s Parking Lot Policies and Procedures. San Diego Municipal Code 59.0502 states that one cannot “intentionally throw, discharge, launch, or spill any solid object (including footballs, baseballs, Frisbees, and other such devices) or liquid substance . . .”
So Unger did break the law. Fortunately, the judge (perhaps another football fan?) declared that if Unger pleaded guilty, the fine would be suspended. The judge was quoted as saying the fine was “ridiculous.”
“There are many different laws that could impact or impair a tailgater’s ability to party,” says Kreitzer. “Some of the questions, from a legal perspective, involve local laws. Most states allow counties and cities to create their own rules regarding public events, so it’s always important to check local municipal code prior to planning any kind of outdoor activities.”
Be aware of copyright laws
Not all tailgate troubles involve local law. Music and live ESPN streams help keep your guests engaged at your tailgate, but are they permitted? “Copyright law may impact a tailgater’s plan to throw an excellent party,” says Kreitzer “There are restrictions on the use of music and videos for public replay when you have a large gathering. You could find yourself liable to the producer of the material if you do not get permission to use the media beforehand.”
One school’s tailgate checklist
Penn State draws more than 100,000 fans to each home game in State College, Pennsylvania. A fan website provides a Penn State Tailgating Guide that helps partiers understand the university’s very specific container laws:
Bring cans or aluminum bottles not glass bottles. PSU official tailgating rules prohibit glass bottles. . . . Kegs have also been prohibited for over 20 years. I really don’t understand why. I have never heard of anyone getting cut on a broken keg, but rules are rules.
Search online for similar tips regarding your next tailgating venue.
Tailgating is a great American pastime. Done responsibly, the tradition will be around for years to come. Don’t let violators ruin your party: do your due diligence, play by the local rules, and have a legally good time.
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