UPDATE (12/15/2016): A reader's response prompted us to investigate the Denton County Policies and Procedures covering county property. According to use of space regulations in the Denton County Building Usage Policy, it is illegal for a county entity to "permit smoking, use of tobacco, drug use, or alcoholic beverages in any County facility (6l)." According to a source in the county judge's office (who wished to remain anonymous), this primarily applies to the sale of alcoholic beverages on county property, and alcoholic beverages are not permitted inside county buildings. However, the county relies on the city's police force to enforce these rules, so it seems (for the time being) the time-honored practice of drinking on the courthouse lawn will continue to be tolerated. Interestingly enough, this means the actual law is an inverse of what many had long assumed; is it legal to drink in public most anywhere Denton, except the courthouse lawn. Stay quirky, Little D.
Like most small towns, Denton has its share of secrets. The city's local culture blog even dedicates an entire spread to its annual Secrets of Denton series. But Denton’s best-kept secret remains frustratingly unknown to the majority of its residents and visitors; even their police force is fuzzy on the issue (depending on whom you ask). The city of Denton won’t publicize it (it's likely in their own best interest not to), and even high-ranking members of the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau are oblivious to what could possibly be the coolest thing about this growing college town: It is legal to consume alcohol in public in Denton. Almost anywhere. Almost anytime. With the exception of public parks (and a weird ordinance against glass bottles in the Fry Street district), anyone of legal drinking age can do so in public in the city of Denton, Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2:15 a.m., and noon to 2:15 a.m. on Sundays (Sec. 22-32).
Local Dentonites and regular visitors have been taking advantage of this glorious legislative oversight for some time now without even knowing it, working under the assumption that drinking is, in certain places or at certain events, legal-ish. Stick around the square during any of the town’s regular outdoor events and you’re likely to see coolers full of beer, wine and DIY mixers among the blankets and folding chairs, but it won’t be glaringly obvious. For many, drinking in public is an assumed taboo, so most event-goers are cautious about their consumption. Even though they witness others engaged in the same activity, they keep their stashes covered, hide their empty bottles and get a tad squirrelly when you ask them whether or not what they’re doing is against the law. During a recent Twilight Tunes, a weekly concert series set on the historic Denton County Courthouse lawn, a number of event goers openly consumed beer or wine while listening to live music, but were unsure as to the legality of their actions.
Brian Courtney, a University of North Texas alum, brought a friend with him for the evening, and they both enjoyed a beer on the courthouse lawn during the show.
“I had heard before that drinking on the square was allowed,” Courtney says, “but this is my first time doing it.” His friend Brian Wick, from Little Elm, admitted they hadn’t originally planned on drinking. “We actually walked up here first without beers and saw everyone else had beers, so we thought to ourselves, everyone's doing it, so I guess that it’s OK?”
When pressed for his opinion regarding the law, he cited safety in numbers. “I think if the majority is doing it, you’re probably safe, that's what I thought,” he says. “Just be safe and clean up after yourself, right?”
Corinth resident Michael Bales thinks concealment is the key. “I may be misinformed, but I’ve heard that as long you had it concealed, you could drink as long as you weren't publicly intoxicated or as long as it wasn’t exposed,” he says, adding he thought the practice was more of an “unspoken policy” than an issue of legal vs. illegal. Bales admitted his source was actually his wife. “I trust anything she says,” he says.
Sisters Mary Ann Sellers and Dianne Spickler are lifelong Denton residents who never miss a Twilight Tunes on the square, though they admit a lot has changed in Denton since they were growing up. Back then, “you couldn't get alcohol in Denton County anywhere,” Dianne says. “You had to go to Dallas or all the way across the river to Oklahoma.” They said they felt comfortable drinking on the courthouse lawn or bringing a bottle of something over from one of the surrounding businesses on the square; but that’s about it.
Most everyone we spoke to, including less-seasoned members of law enforcement, echoed a similar assumption: Drinking is tolerated on the courthouse lawn, but pretty much nowhere else. The going theory attributes the practice to either a legislative loophole where city laws aren’t enforceable on county property, or simply an old-standing custom. Many would be shocked to discover those self-imposed restrictions are overly cautious and entirely unnecessary.
Laws against drinking in public, like most alcohol-related legislation, have a long and capricious past, swayed by public sentiment and the often uncomfortable relationship between the public, their governing bodies and private business interests. There is no federal ban against the public consumption of alcohol, and only 17 states have banned it statewide. For states without a blanket ban, the onus is placed on an individual municipality to cobble together a code or ordinance making it explicitly illegal.
In the state of Texas, those statutes are informed by the overarching code set forth by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. According to Sec 109.35, a governing body of a municipality can pass a law (by charter or ordinance) prohibiting the possession of an open container or the public consumption of alcoholic beverages, but only within the confines of clearly defined central business district. This is the route Dallas took, outlawing public alcohol consumption within the “Dallas Central Area,” a thoroughly confusing boundary cobbled together by rivers, highways, incorrectly named city streets and DART rail lines. Outside of that central area, it is illegal to consume alcohol on any property owned or leased by the city, on a public street or any public place within 18 feet of a public street, or anywhere within 1,000 feet of a school (Chapter 6, Sec. 6-6.1).
“Denton currently has no existing ordinance relating to open containers,” says Lindsey Baker, Denton’s public information and intergovernmental relations officer. Essentially, it is legal to drink in public in Denton precisely because it is not illegal, or at least it isn’t yet.
“Public intoxication is always an issue and it is something we do take very seriously,” Baker says. Officers will intervene “if someone is putting themselves or others in danger.”
If public intoxication becomes a rampant issue once residents realize the extent of what’s permissible, passing a law to prohibit drinking in public wouldn’t be a difficult sell from a public safety standpoint. But would the city want to? Besides being a major buzzkill, passing such an ordinance would have a negative impact on businesses as well. Right now, it is perfectly legal to enjoy a variety of alcoholic beverages while strolling outdoors almost anywhere in Denton. This is a boon for business, especially those located along the historical square. Residents and visitors can BYOB for a romantic picnic on the square or meander down the surrounding streets with a bottle, a pint or even a growler, if they’re so inclined. There are a number of businesses around the square able to facilitate this, they just didn’t know it was allowed — until now.
Denton isn’t the only city that lacks a code specifically prohibiting the practice. Neither Flower Mound, Lewisville nor Corinth have adopted such legislation, though permissible hours of consumption vary by city, as dictated by what constitutes an “extended hours” area in accordance with both city and TABC code. For instance, Denton constitutes an extended hours area; last call happens at 2 a.m. and it is illegal to consume alcohol past time that in a bar, or past 2:15 a.m. in public. The permissible hours for sale or consumption in a smaller city fall between 7 a.m. and midnight Monday through Saturday, and noon to midnight on Sunday, unless an ordinance is passed to extend them (Sec. 105.03).
But just because you can drink alcohol legally in public in Denton does not mean you can take alcohol into or out of just anywhere. Texas may lack a statewide ban on consuming alcohol in public, but state laws prohibiting public intoxication are enforced locally (Title 10 Sec 49-02). And though Texas was one of the last states to pass such a law, open containers are prohibited in motor vehicles, regardless of whether or not the car is being operated (Title 10 Sec 49.031). Moreover, private citizens and business owners alike must contend with the often confounding rules regarding TABC permits.
To regulate licenses to buy and sell alcohol, TABC grants businesses a variety of permits that dictate what is (and is not) permitted on premises. For instance, a wine and beer retailer’s permit allows a business to sell wine and beer (but not spirits) for both on- and off-premise consumption; Wine Squared and the Bearded Monk fall into this category. Customers can drink wine and beer at the bar or purchase a bottle to take home. Once the customer leaves the premises with their alcohol, local law dictates whether or not they can consume that alcohol in a public place, or if they must wait until they reach the privacy of their own home. The more restrictive wine and beer retailer’s off-premise permit allows a business to sell for off-premise consumption only (most grocery stores and carry-outs fall into this category). In general, it’s easy to discern between the two; you can’t drink your beer in the cereal aisle at Kroger, but in Denton you can walk across the street to public property and crack one open with impunity (as long as you’re of drinking age and within the legal drinking hours).
Liquor, on the other hand, is a tricky mistress. Dentonites should be at least vaguely aware of the additional pains businesses must undergo for a permit to sell liquor or spirits. Many years ago, Denton was dry; you had to drive past city limits (or sometimes out of state) to buy anything alcoholic. It was 1978 before voters agreed to lessen the regulations and open the city to beer and wine sales, and only after a years-long legal battle challenging the decision.
For the next 37 years, Denton operated as a “moist” city; not completely dry, but a patchwork of legal limitations compounded with geographic growth sowed confusion. Recently incorporated remained dry; potential construction plans were halted by businesses once they realized their stores would not legally be able to sell beer or wine. In order to sell liquor, Denton bars were forced to operate as private clubs, a costly and frustrating practice for both owners and customers. All that changed this year when Denton officially became wet. A 72.9 percent majority voted to open the city to all alcohol sales, bringing with it a bumper crop of new local liquor stores and lessening the restrictions on businesses for whom alcohol composes the majority of their sales.
Like most code, the description/restrictions for TABC permits read like that iTunes user agreement you’ve never so much as glanced at, but the chapter on mixed beverage permits is especially taxing (no pun intended). A mixed beverage permit allows a bar or restaurant to sell mixed beverages (including distilled spirits) for on-premise consumption only, meaning nothing a customer purchases from that business can leave with them (Sec. 28.01). The only exception to this rule allows customers who have purchased an entire bottle of wine with their meal to take the remainder home (Sec. 28.10b). So if you’re looking to drink socially (and publicly), a brunch mimosa on the square won’t be hard to come by. If you're more a bloody mary type, you’ll have to purchase your distilled spirits from one of the many new liquor stores around town. Under the package store permit, these stores are licensed to sell liquor in sealed containers for off-premise consumption only. Again, state and local law dictates what you can and can’t do with that liquor once you get it out the door.
Denton has a lot going for it: a thriving music scene, a burgeoning craft beer movement, an up-and-coming restaurant renaissance and, as it turns out, practically unrestricted public drinking laws. If you’re interested in taking advantage of these freedoms, here’s a list of our favorite places to help you BYOB in Little D.
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110 W. Oak St., Denton
Owner and sommelier Brooke E. Ray has curated an impressive selection of wine for Denton’s favorite punk rock wine bar. Enjoy a glass or bottle at the cozy bar or gorgeous back patio, or take your order to go for a romantic picnic on the courthouse lawn. Their cheese and charcuterie boards make for a great pairing.
122 E. McKinney St., Denton
Promising an expansive selection of bottles and craft beers on tap, along with a number of community-friendly events, the Bearded Monk is a great place to spend an evening. Pick up a bottle, six-pack or growler to go and enjoy your purchase while appreciating Denton’s laid-back atmosphere.
406 W. Hickory St., Denton
For over 20 years, Midway Mart has carried what is arguably the best beer selection anywhere near campus. They’ve managed to pack a surprisingly diverse array of imports, microbrews and other specialty beers into the small convenience store. Midway Mart sells for carry-out only, but it’s conveniently located on the way to the square.
Midway Craft House
1115 W. Hickory St., Denton
Midway Mart’s little brother opened this past year centered around the same commitment to craft beer, with the addition of a growler fill station. The expanded space, closer to UNT campus, also regularly hosts local music and comedy acts.