Decriminalize Open Containers In OC

The debate over Ocean City’s approach to open containers has been going on for years, but what makes the most recent discussion so unique is government officials are weighing in and appear to be looking to make a change.

If you are walking on public property in Ocean City with an open beer or mixed drink, you are in violation of the town’s open container law and will most likely be charged with a criminal misdemeanor. You could also get a warning if the cop buys your story or even be arrested. It’s up to the individual officer’s discretion to handle the matter as he or she sees fit.

What makes this debate so interesting is the Ocean City Mayor and Council rarely intervenes in the police department’s business. For years, the police department has operated with little to no oversight and it shows how far the relationship between the police and elected officials have come for the council to be intervening and pushing this issue.

Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you ask. In a general sense, the police chief rules over the police department with little to no supervision. The daily business is Chief Bernadette DiPino’s responsibility.  In this case, city officials are right to step in and asset their opinion because it’s time for a change with the enforcement of open container violations.

Proponents of the current open container policy contend police’s ability to be proactive on lesser crimes prevents further crimes typically a result of alcohol abuse. Additionally, it’s believed open container arrests often lead to other charges, such as underage drinking and narcotics. The city’s policy is one example that when combined cumulatively with other measures makes Ocean City a safe place to live and visit, supporters say.

Opponents acknowledge there should be a penalty for violating the town’s open container law but they believe it should be decriminalized, removing the possibility of arrest and making it a simple municipal infraction. It should not fall under officer discretion. They say the pure number of open container violations take highly-skilled police officers off the streets for an extended period of time when they should be out maintaining peace and food order.

Research presented last week shows that eight of 10 resort destinations surveyed currently share Ocean City’s policy on open container violations. In three of those resorts, it’s a criminal misdemeanor with the maximum penalty set as a fine.

At last week’s Police Commission meeting, city officials spoke strongly about the need to decriminalize the violation. Mayor Rick Meehan said, “I realize the police department has an extremely difficult job and I’m not looking to make it more difficult. … I really do believe in many cases where a citation could be issued in lieu of arrests being made.”

The answer here is to give all open container violators a simple municipal citation and make it payable by a fine. We agree officer discretion needs to be removed from this policy. There is no need to make it a mandatory court appearance for both the defendant and the arresting officer. It’s a waste of police and court resources, which are far too valuable to be using on these minor offenses. The time is now to change this law.

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.