The Knoxville Police Department is giving plenty of fair warning ahead of next fall’s football season about its plan to begin aggressively enforcing the city’s open container ordinance among gameday fans — or at least those who have to settle for an off-campus tailgating spot.
Officer Donny Huskey, with KPD’s Inspections Unit, said the tendency of fans to drink openly before, during and after University of Tennessee home games, particularly in parking lots at Cumberland Avenue businesses, is a growing problem.
In fact, violations have become so common, he explained, that the department has had no choice but to selectively enforce the prohibition against public alcohol consumption, usually reserving citations for those who carry their drinks onto a sidewalk.
“Probably because we’re outnumbered,” Huskey said. “We’re not trying to stop everyone from drinking alcohol. But we’ve got an ordinance on the books and we need to enforce it. If you can’t drink there today, you can’t on Saturday. The rules don’t change.”
Besides public streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, school property and parks, which are all off-limits for alcohol, the operative clause of the ordinance in this instance is, “any privately owned parking lot held open to use by the public.”
By city attorney Ron Mills’ interpretation, that can include any lot owned by a restaurant, gas station, bank or other business where spaces often are rented out to tailgaters. But more important than who can rent the spaces, said Mills, is whether the general public still has access to the site.
Are the tailgaters in a particular lot allowed to invite their friends onto the property? Is the general public still allowed pedestrian access through the lot or is access controlled by a fence, an attendant or some other means?
Those will be some of the deciding factors, Mills said.
“Given the wording of the ordinance … ‘open to use by the public’ is pretty broad language,” said Mills, adding that the city beer code might be amended to include more specific definitions before next season’s first home game. “In some situations, it’s going to be a judgment call.”
One of the major differences that also might come into play is whether the parking lot is on or off campus. UT’s parking areas are public property — another site deemed off-limits under the city ordinance. And UT itself is officially a dry campus, according to school policy, and despite the obvious infractions seen on game days.
Huskey, however, said KPD has no plans to expand its crackdown that far and wide.
“Our focus is going to be on the (Cumberland Avenue) Strip,” he said. “We’re not there to tackle UT property. They’ve got their own police force.”
Huskey said the University of Tennessee Police Department would be briefed on KPD’s plan, but they’ll still leave it to campus police to exercise their own judgment.
KPD also plans to notify all Cumberland Avenue businesses with parking lots, and Huskey said he would personally deliver the notices so no one is surprised next fall.
“It’s not only UT fans,” Mills said. “It’s something that’s got to get out to the other schools as well.”
Hayes Hickman may be reached at 865-342-6323.