Wednesday, August 29 – Officials Debate Open Container Enforcement

OCEAN CITY – The discussion on changing the open container violation from a criminal misdemeanor to a municipal infraction continued at an Ocean City Police Commission meeting last week with further opinions being heard but little headway being made.

The consideration to change the open container law from a criminal misdemeanor to a municipal infraction has been circulating for some time now. Under the town code, it is unlawful to possess or consume alcoholic beverages “on any public street, highway, alley, sidewalk, parking lot, boardwalk, or public beach” within the town limits.

Police officers have the discretion to issue a municipal citation, a warning, or even to arrest the suspect and press criminal charges.  Changing the open container violation to a municipal infraction would rule out the potential for arrest and allow people the option to pay a fine in lieu of appearing in court.

Proponents argue that it will keep officers on the street, save court time and costs, and keep essentially “good” people from leaving Ocean City with a bad taste in their mouth from an open container arrest.

Opponents of the change support the “broken window theory”, which argues that arresting someone early in the night for an open container violation could prevent worse crimes from occurring later in the night. The “broken window theory” also considers that an arrest for an open container violation could give rise to further criminal offenses, i.e. possession of narcotics.

Police Chief Bernadette DiPino has maintained in the past the importance of preventing crimes earlier in the night through open container arrests, incidents that usually spawn from alcohol abuse. The argument maintains that those who are being compliant and respectful to officers are usually given a citation anyway.

The issue was discussed again at last Thursday’s Police Commission meeting. The Police Commission last left the discussion open ended, deciding to gather more research on the issue before presenting it to the Mayor and Council.

Police Captain Kevin Kirstein presented his research to the commission last Thursday, in which he looked at 10 other resort jurisdictions to see how they handle open containers.

“Eight of the ten are the same as Ocean City,” Kirstein reported, explaining the resorts maintain an open container violation as a criminal misdemeanor as Ocean City does. He also reported that three of those resorts maintain an open container violation as a criminal misdemeanor but with the maximum penalty set as a fine.

Atlantic City, as one can imagine, was one of the resorts that did not uphold a strict policy on open containers. Panama Beach, another resort mentioned, allows for open containers, with the exception of glass bottles, on the beach but not on the streets.

After hearing Kirstein’s findings, several opinions were heard, with support for the change being heard from the mayor and council members.

Councilman Jay Hancock put his full support behind the change to municipal infraction.

“I think we’d be better served without it,” he said in favor of doing away with the arrestable aspect of the offense.

Hancock added that it would prevent officers from having “to come back to court in mid-January for an open container case that’s been postponed three times in hopes of that officer not showing.”

Hancock explained that by having open container violations set as a municipal infraction it could prevent officers from being pulled off of the streets and would also help to cut back on the amount of time officers spend in court.

“It’ll probably make for less confrontation on the Boardwalk,” he added.

Council President Joe Mitrecic said, “I’m in favor of this. I don’t think it should include minors but other than that I support doing something to change the law.”

Mayor Rick Meehan also showed support.

“I realize the Police Department has an extremely difficult job and I’m not looking to make it more difficult… I really do believe there’s many cases where a citation could be issued in lieu of arrests being made,” he said.

A number of issues arose during the discussion including the commission wanting specific numbers on open container violations this year and in past summers as well as looking at the number of arrests made for minors and people over the age of 21.

With no exact numbers available at that time, Meehan suggested that the issue be postponed until all valid information and data was available. The commission agreed to continue the discussion but move forward with it at another time.

For the complete story, see Friday’s issue of The Dispatch and its online counterpart, www.mdcoastdispatch.com.

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