OCEAN CITY — With the arrival of another summer season and the pending invasion of the June Bugs, Ocean City will certainly see a spike in the number of lower level crimes, such as simple marijuana possession and disorderly conduct, for example, but the resort’s holding cells will not likely be filled with young revelers on most nights.
A change in Maryland law that took effect on Jan. 1 allows law enforcement officers in Ocean City and across the state to issue criminal citations instead of arrests. The intent is to streamline the booking process and keep officers on the street instead of spending hours filling out paperwork and processing defendants charged with certain simple offenses that traditionally have been arrestable offenses.
While the change has been in effect for months, perhaps nowhere in Maryland will it be tested more than in Ocean City in the coming weeks when thousands of high school seniors, college students and summer workers descend on the resort. With them comes a traditional spike in the number of low-level crimes.
Crimes that used to result in an overnight stay in jail, complete with booking, fingerprinting and the issuing of charging documents, will now result in many cases in a citation issued at the scene if officers are satisfied certain conditions are met. That’s not to say OCPD officers are simply going to be writing tickets all summer instead of making arrests.
“The legislature attempted to streamline the charging process for certain types of crimes and certain eligible offenses, with the key word there being eligible,” OCPD Public Information Officer Mike Levy said. “Once a suspect is in our custody, he or she can be issued a criminal citation under certain circumstances. For example, we have to make certain we’re satisfied with the identity evidence. In other words, we have to make sure they are who they say they are. We also have to reasonably believe the defendant will comply with the conditions of the citation. We also have to be sure that releasing a defendant at the scene on a citation will not pose a threat to public safety.”
Levy said there are several “eligible” charges for a citation instead of an arrest and the officers will make a determination on the scene.
“This really isn’t black and white,” he said. “There is a lot of discretion involved, but our officers will always base their decisions on public safety. Does this person pose a threat to public safety if we allow him or her to walk away with a citation? Whatever decision is made will still count as an arrest, but the intent is to keep officers on the road to handle calls for service and reduce the cost to the court system.”
Even if a citation is issued, however, the defendant still faces much of the same court processes as an actual arrest. For example, the defendant will have to appear for a preliminary inquiry at the later date, at which time a trial date will be set. Some, including attorney Brian Clark, who grew up in Ocean City and maintains an office in the resort and in Rockville, have raised concerns that defendants issued citations might not take their cases as seriously as they would if they had actually been arrested and spent time in jail.
“The bigger issue, which could cause confusion, backlogs and disarray with the June Bugs is the fact they won’t be transported, booked, fingerprinted and taken to the Ocean City jail for an overnight stay and have to bond out and see a commissioner like they’ve been doing here in Ocean City and statewide forever,” said Clark this week. “So the O.C. jail should see far less people in them in June as most who are just charged with pot or disorderly conduct have to be issued a citation.”
Clark voiced concern young defendants issued citations for certain eligible charges will not understand the gravity of the cases against them and the possible repercussions.
“The confusion could be that the kid charged must still understand that it’s a jailable offense and they still have to appear in court at preliminary inquiry and for a court date to face the charges,” he said. “It is not a payable citation. The fact that the kid won’t be arrested or booked will or could lead many to not take the charge as seriously as in years past and a conviction for drug possession will seriously harm their career and job prospects.”
Clark said the intent of the law change is to streamline the booking and court processes, but it might end up having the opposite effect.
“The state legislature changed this law to save money and lessen the number of people spending the night or day in jail on marijuana possession,” he said. “I think it could seriously lead to a large number of out-of-state residents who fail to appear in court and are issued bench warrants, or they show up unprepared and don’t realize it’s serious and jailable.”
Levy acknowledged the jury is still out so to speak on the potential for an increase in failure to appear cases and bench warrants for out-of-state defendants who were issued a citation instead of being arrested. However, he said OCPD officers will have broad discretion on when to issue a citation or make an arrest and a judgment of a defendant’s likelihood to comply with the citation’s conditions will be factor.
Levy said one of the main considerations for a citation versus an arrest is an assurance the lower level offense is the only one the defendant can or should be charged with at the time.
“For example, if we catch a kid smoking pot, we can issue a citation,” he said. “However, if a search incident to the arrest reveals cocaine, heroin or ecstasy, for example, that takes it to the next level and a citation is no longer appropriate and an arrest will be made.”
Levy also presented another example for disorderly conduct or trespassing where the actions of the defendants after the police arrive would likely determine a citation or an arrest.
“If there is a fight outside a bar, and we intervene and the combatants have calmed down and agreed to go their separate ways and the issue is resolved, citations might be appropriate in those cases,” he said. “However, if the situation is not resolved and there appears to be signs it might escalate, in other words one or both of the combatants says they’re going to come after the other one later, then arrests are appropriate in those instances.”
With thousands of young people descending on the resort in the next few weeks and the associated spike in minor crimes, such as simple possession and disorderly conduct, there will be ample opportunity to see how it plays out eventually.
“Of course, those are concerns voiced by many and we’ll have to monitor that when we get a large enough sample size of citations issued and court appearances,” said Levy. “We’re going to try to process these individuals right at the scene and we soon might have the technology to do that remotely in terms of booking and fingerprinting suspects.”
Another issue raised by attorney Clark is the absence of charging documents and narratives traditionally issued to defendants upon their release from jail. The documents carefully outline why an arrest was affected, what the officer said, what the defendants said and, in some cases, what witnesses said. Those documents will still be prepared, but won’t be immediately available to defendants issued citations at the scene.
“Clients will be less likely to be able to know exactly what evidence they have,” said Clark. “This fact leads me to believe that the system could clog up. Unfortunately, being put in jail for a few hours and having everything explained to a defendant as they sober up has a way of focusing these kids to take care of their case.”