BERLIN – Ocean City’s vote this week to decriminalize the resort’s open container law provided an opportunity to review the policy in the county at-large, and many might be surprised to learn there are no laws on the books governing open alcoholic beverage containers on the streets and sidewalks outside the municipalities.
The Ocean City Council this week approved on a first reading an ordinance that would make having an open container a municipal infraction and not an arrestable offense, as it has been for decades. Countless offenders, some more innocent than others, have been arrested for carrying an open container of alcohol in the resort over the years, but policy change approved by the Mayor and Council this week will make it a municipal infraction with a citation and a fine of $200, which can be reduced to $100 if paid within 48 hours.
While carrying an open beer or cocktail or glass of wine in Ocean City will not land one behind bars anymore, it still carries a weighty penalty, but there is nothing on the books to prevent one from doing so in at-large areas of the county such as West Ocean City. While it might not be entirely safe and probably not recommended, there is no law preventing an otherwise law-abiding citizen from walking down a public street or sidewalk with a cocktail in areas outside the municipalities, according to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office.
“There is no statute prohibiting it in the county,” said Colonel Doug Dods of the Sheriff’s Office. “It doesn’t come up that often. Quite honestly, I had to check up on it because we don’t even see it that often.”
West Ocean City, with its many restaurants and bars, is the most likely area of the county at-large where people would travel from one place to another with an open container. According to the letter of the law, one could walk from Harborside to The Shark with an open beer or from Marlin Moon Grille to the Greene Turtle West with a glass of wine, for example, without fear of prosecution, provided they are in compliance with all other state and local statutes. However, Dods said it has not been a problem in his long experience in the area.
“At least in West Ocean City, people tend to stay in the establishments they’re visiting and aren’t out walking the streets with drinks in their hands,” he said. “They tend to do a good job of keeping it on the property.”
Of course, there are laws and statutes on the books one needs to be aware of before brazenly walking down Route 611 with an open container, according to Dods, and they are often subject to interpretation.
“Each situation is different,” he said. “What are they doing? Are they behaving or are they stumbling or fighting or exhibiting other illegal behavior? Are they creating a public safety issue? If they’re being disruptive in some way, we have other things at our disposal such as a disorderly conduct charge.”
While the county at-large doesn’t have any laws on the books regarding open containers, each municipality has its own way of handling the issue. In Berlin, for example, it is unlawful for any person to possess, in an open container, or consume any alcoholic beverage or beverages upon any of the public streets, avenues, alleys, sidewalks, public parks or public property. Any violation is punishable as a municipal infraction with a fine of $25 for each and every violation.
Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said this week his officers are well aware of the statute, and while they aren’t always overly zealous about enforcing it, they do write their share of citations.
“We never say you’re allowed to drink on the street or sidewalk, but we understand the situation in Ocean City is different,” said Downing, who spent part of his career as a seasonal officer in the resort. “Ocean City is a place many people go to drink. Berlin typically isn’t a destination to party and drink, although we have our own issues at times.”
Downing explained his officers make a strong effort to resolve open container issues with cooperation before resorting to legal means.
“We advise them to get back on the property and they usually do,” he said. “If they refuse, we issue a citation, and if they create more problems, we can go the disorderly conduct route.”
Because it is not a municipality, Ocean Pines is governed by state and county open container laws or the lack of them. Ocean Pines Police Chief Dave Massey, long an advocate for stringent open container laws while serving a chief of police in Ocean City for years, said this week it is not a big problem in his community.
“There are really no alcohol establishments within Ocean Pines,” he said. “It’s not like Ocean City where there’s something like 180 of them. That is a unique environment. Being a resort, it is completely different.”
Massey said Ocean Pines has problems at certain times of the year with underage drinking, particularly with college and high school graduation parties, but otherwise, open container violations aren’t a big issue in the community.
“If a guy is cutting his lawn with a beer in his hand and walks down the street to see his neighbor, we don’t necessarily have a problem with that,” he said.
Of course, it is important to note state law governs open containers within vehicles in all areas, whether they are in a municipality or not. In 1998, citing the obvious correlation between open alcohol containers in vehicles and traffic accidents and fatalities, the federal government decided to provide incentives to any state that passed strict laws regarding open containers in vehicles.
Under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century- or TEA-21 Act, any state that did not pass open container laws got a percentage of its annual roadway funds redirected to alcohol education programs each year. To date, 39 states have laws on the books governing open containers in vehicles including Maryland, where both the driver and his or her passengers are prohibited from possessing an open container in a vehicle.
Oddly enough, Mississippi is the one state where it is not illegal for a driver to be in possession of an alcoholic beverage as long as he or she stays below the state’s .08 legal limit.
Maryland’s law does provide obvious exceptions, however. The driver is never allowed to be in possession of an open container, but the passengers are permitted to if the vehicle is designed, maintained or used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation, for example, tour buses, taxis and limousines.