OCEAN CITY – Open container laws were examined yet again this week as the Ocean City Police Commission reviewed statistics and discussed whether an open container violation should warrant an arrest.
OCPD Corporal Glen McIntyre, who is currently performing the crime analyst duties for the police department, along with Captain Michael Colbert, presented the commission with some facts and statistics on open container violations.
Colbert explained that in 2005 the department was asked to examine the number of physical arrests made as a result of open container violations. A study found that in 2005, 1,200 people were arrested for being in possession of an open container. As a result of the significantly high number, the police department began making efforts to make better judgments on arrests.
In 2006, police were encouraged to use better discretion when making physical arrests for open container violations. The result was a significant decrease in the number of arrests, dropping to only 279 arrests in 2006. Colbert explained that it was a direct result of police cutting back.
In 2007 so far, the numbers went up slightly, but were still well below the 1,000-arrest average that had been the norm for several years.
“A lot of the increase this year really can be attributed to subjects under 21 that were being arrested,” said Colbert.
City Manager Dennis Dare questioned why those under 21, who should not be drinking anyway, were being arrested for open container violations and not for underage drinking.
Colbert explained that a minor in possession of alcohol is not an arrestable offense. A minor who is caught drinking on private property cannot be arrested for that offense, but can be issued a citation. When minors are caught drinking on public property, however, they can be arrested for open container and issued citations for underage drinking. He maintained that the majority of open container arrests result from underage offenders.
“I do believe that we need to go to making this a citation offense,” said Councilman Jay Hancock, noting that there are too many instances in which unnecessary arrests are made. “Some of those people went to jail simply because of a couple ounces of beer in a cup.”
The debate over whether an open container violation should be a criminal or municipal infraction has been continuing for some time now, with many arguing that arresting someone for mistakenly walking down the street with an open beer is a waste of time for the person, the officer and for the courts.
“I’ve heard its, ‘we want arrests’,” Hancock continued, explaining that he’s heard from citizens and police officers that officers are often making the easy open container arrest in an attempt to have another arrest to chalk up or to fuel a power trip.
“They’re given a specific direction to use discretion and not arrest everyone they see,” Colbert said, explaining that if that kind of behavior is slipping through the cracks it is not under the direction of the department. Colbert added that between 2005 and 2006 the number of arrests dropped 60 to 70 percent.
Police Chief Bernadette DiPino added that the strictest enforcement has been focused on those who are under 21. DiPino explained that since 1995, the police department has done a great job in significantly reducing the number of injuries and deaths of those under 21. She added that between 2006 and 2007, only a slight number of arrests were made on individuals over 21.
“There’s an appropriate time to make an arrest,” Colbert said, explaining that it has been the department’s drive to give direction to officers, both current and new, to use better discretion.
Colbert explained that full-time officers handled 60 percent of the open container arrests last year. He noted that the full-time officers make up one-third of the force, pointing out that one-third of the manpower was making 60 percent of the open container arrests.
Councilman Lloyd Martin questioned what would happen when the no-smoking laws take affect, pushing people outside of bars to smoke. He pointed out that people would inevitably move outside with their drinks, which could add to the open container problem.
DiPino explained that at this point the department was only presenting the commission with the facts and statistics and that a decision could be later made after the facts are reviewed.