Police Comm. Votes To Alter Open Container Law

OCEAN CITY – After numerous discussions over the current open container laws, the Ocean City Police Commission agreed this week to support the change of open container violations from arrestable to non-arrestable offenses.

The consideration to change the open container law from a criminal misdemeanor to a municipal infraction has been circulating for years. 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.

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.

The commission agreed this week to make the change to a municipal infraction, which would carry a fine of $200, $100 if paid within 48 hours. Violators would also not be required to appear in court unless they wished to object to the citation.

“It doesn’t create the burden of a criminal history,” said Councilman Jay Hancock, a retired member of the Ocean City Police Department.

In 2007, 444 arrests were made for open container violations with an additional 248 citations given for the offense. Captain Mike Colbert pointed out that of the 444 arrests, 75 percent were under the age of 21. Currently, an open container violation is the only arrestable offense for underage drinking. A minor in possession of alcohol is not an arrestable offense in Ocean City.

Colbert and DiPino pointed out the significant decrease in arrests for open container violations since 2003. From 2003 to 2005, the OCPD averaged 950 arrests per year for open container violations. In 2006 and 2007, the average dropped to 362 arrests per year for the offense.

“We believe this is going to save lives,” said DiPino, pointing out the leverage it gives officers with underage drinking as well as the potential crimes that are prevented by getting intoxicated people off of the streets. “We just ask for another year of statistics.”

Councilman Jim Hall suggested that the change to a municipal infraction be made this year.

“It takes an officer off the street for three hours, dealing with a kid with an open container,” said Hall, pointing out the amount of man-hours that are spent.

“You’ll keep the officers out on the street,” agreed Hancock.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres noted both positive and negative aspects of making the change to a municipal infraction. Ayres noted that collecting money from out of state visitors could be difficult. However, the money collected would go back to the municipality rather than the state, explained Ayres.

Hancock suggested turning violators into a collections agency.

“If they don’t pay up, then they’ll get their credit report hit,” he said.

Hancock maintained that a steep fine would deter violators from drinking in public.

“I think the citation is going to have an impact,” he said.

“I know when you get a speeding ticket it affects you,” agreed Hall.

Mayor Rick Meehan questioned whether a citation would deter underage drinkers from continuing to drink for the rest of the night.

“I do have a concern with the fact that 75 percent were underage drinkers,” he said.

Whether it’s through arrests or citations, DiPino said the police department’s goal would remain the same – to keep the streets safe.

“We don’t want people drinking in public,” said DiPino.

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 council is expected to address the issue in the near future.