OCEAN CITY – The fate of Ocean City’s open container law was delayed yet again this week, as the City Council voted unanimously to table the discussion until certain facts could be cleared up and all council members could be present.
Open container discussions have been circulating for years, as town officials and the Ocean City Police Department have struggled to come to an agreement on the letter of the law. The Ocean City Police Commission voted last week to support the change in the law that would move open container violations from an arrestable to a non-arrestable offense.
As it currently stands, 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.
Both sides of the argument were heard at last week’s Police Commission meeting. Police department representatives maintained that open container arrests have decreased over the past few years, with the majority of arrests in the under 21-age bracket.
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.
Ocean City 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.
Despite DiPino’s concerns, the commission voted to send a favorable recommendation to the City Council to make the change to a municipal infraction, recommending a $200 fine for the offense, $100 if paid within 48 hours.
The issue came to the City Council level this week, but was tabled after the council agreed that more time was needed.
“I think we need a little more discussion on this for clarity,” said Council member Jim Hall, suggesting that the discussion be tabled.
Hall pointed out that while he is eager to move forward with the change, some facts needed to be cleared up before making any decisions. Hall also pointed out that, with the absence of Mayor Rick Meehan and Council members Lloyd Martin and Nancy Howard, the decision should be postponed.
“I’d really like to go ahead with this. I think this needs to be done, the ordinance needs to be in place by Memorial Day,” said Councilman Jay Hancock. “This is a good ordinance, it’s going to be good for the public and I think it’s going to be good for the Police Department.”
Hall explained that there were still a few items that needed to be sorted out, suggesting the issue be moved back to the Police Commission level before being voted on by the council.
“It’s a little unclear. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page on who can be arrested and who can’t be arrested,” he said.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said she would like the opposition to be present for the discussion.
“I think you’re rushing it,” said Pillas.
“I think it’s important that we have all the council members here,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic.
The council voted unanimously to table the discussion, agreeing to bring it back to the table as soon as possible.