OCEAN CITY – Open container violations are one step closer to being a non-arrestable offense, after the City Council voted 6-1 this week to approve the ordinance change on first reading.
The ordinance change calls for open container violations to move from a criminal misdemeanor to a municipal infraction, which would essentially move the offense from arrestable to non-arrestable.
Currently, open container violations are issued at the discretion of police officers. Police can issue a citation for the offense or make an arrest. The new ordinance calls for police to no longer have the option to arrest. The offense would instead be punished with a $200 fine, $100 if paid within the first 48 hours.
The issue has been a contentious one, with strong opinions heard from both sides.
Proponents of the change argue that officers waste valuable time off the streets with open container arrests. It is also argued that open container arrests often keep “good” people off the streets for an offense they most likely did not realize was illegal. For example, a father on vacation with his family steps out onto the street in front of his condo with a beer or glass of wine and faces the potential for arrest.
Opponents of the change would argue that police officers would use their discretion in the above example and would issue a warning or a citation. Opponents also 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.
Since a spike in open container arrests in 2003, Ocean City police have been working to decrease the numbers, encouraging police officers to use discretion when facing open container violations.
Although the numbers have declined since then, dropping from 1,004 arrests in 2003 to 444 arrests last year, many still feel that discretion is not working efficiently enough.
Several statistics have been highlighted in the argument, with many pointing out that the majority of arrests are made on those under 21. Of the 444 arrests made in 2007, 331 were from the under-21 crowd.
The City Council voted 6-1 last week to move forward with the change, mirroring the vote this week to approve the ordinance on first reading.
Council member Margaret Pillas voted in opposition to the motion both times.
“I’m concerned about the vulnerability of the Boardwalk, especially in June,” she said, pointing out that open container arrests have been used as a preventative tool along the Boardwalk in past years.
“The original ordinance wasn’t passed to get people off the Boardwalk randomly, it was passed for open containers,” argued Council member Jay Hancock.
Pillas also noted letters of opposition to the law change, sent to the Mayor and City Council, from Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and State’s Attorney Joel Todd.
Hancock noted that the letter from the State’s Attorney’s Office was received in June 2007, pointing out that if the law change was adamantly opposed, the city would most likely have received another letter this year.
“I think this ordinance change will be good for everybody,” said Hancock.
Second reading of the ordinance change and a final vote is scheduled for May 19.