OCEAN CITY – Open container violations will no longer be an arrestable offense in the resort town, after the City Council voted 6-1 this week to move forward with the proposal to change the offense to a non-arrestable, municipal infraction.
For years, local government officials have gone back and forth over the open container issue, weighing the pros and cons of changing open container violations from a criminal misdemeanor to a municipal infraction. A decision was finally made this week, however, with the City Council voting to change the offense to a municipal infraction with a $200 fine, $100 if paid within 48 hours. More importantly, open container violations will no longer be deemed an arrestable offense. The change will now be forwarded to ordinance form and must be approved twice by the council.
In 2003, open container arrests peaked at 1,004, with 410 of those arrests made on individuals over the age of 21 and 594 arrests of the under 21 crowd. Officials dealt with the increasing arrests by addressing the issue at the police level and emphasizing officer discretion. Measures were taken to decrease those numbers, specifically at the training level, with new police officers being told to use discretion when dealing with open container violations.
In 2007, 444 arrests were made for open container violations, 113 of those arrests were made on those over 21. Despite a decrease in numbers, many officials felt the numbers were not enough, questioning whether the offense should be changed to a municipal infraction.
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", suggesting 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. The argument maintains those who are being compliant and respectful to officers are usually given a citation anyway.
The final decision came down to the City Council this week, with both sides of the argument being heard once again.
"I think it’s overdue, it needs to be done, and it will benefit the community," said Councilman Jay Hancock, making a motion to move forward with the change.
"I’m not in favor of changing this. I haven’t heard any proof that this is a good idea," said Council member Margaret Pillas.
Pillas referred to letters from both the states attorney and Police Chief DiPino that voiced opposition to the change.
Pillas also argued that open container arrests don’t keep officers off of the streets for more than an hour and that the arrests keep the streets safe.
Hancock questioned how police officers have the clairvoyance to know that an open container arrest will prevent a crime later in the night.
Pillas argued that the officers’ discretion over arrests has had an affect over the past few years. "In the last two years, there’s been some decline in arrests," she said,
Ocean City Police Captain Mike Colbert agreed that discretion was being emphasized among the police officers.
"I don’t think discretion is an option any longer and that’s why I support this," said Council President Joe Mitrecic.
"The vast majority of them tend to be underage," pointed out Colbert.
Currently, a minor in possession of alcohol is not an arrestable offense in Ocean City. Rather, the offense carries a fine of up to $500 as well as a mandatory court appearance.
"This is strictly for the guy that steps onto the Boardwalk with a glass of wine – this is not about being under 21," said Councilman Jim Hall, pointing out that the underlying issue is open container arrests, not underage drinking.
"Whether or not the law changes, it’s still going to be illegal, one way or another," said Mayor Rick Meehan.
The council voted six in favor, with Pillas in opposition, to change the law to a municipal infraction, carrying a fine of $200 with a $100 discount if paid within 48 hours.