Note to summer vacationers: Drinking a beer in public in Ocean City can now get you arrested, even if you're older than 21.
On Monday night, at the direct request of the Ocean City Police Department, the Ocean City Town Council unanimously passed an "emergency ordinance" to change the punishment for possessing an open alcohol container in public from a municipal infraction to a misdemeanor offense.
The new ordinance, effective immediately, returns the town's laws to what they were before 2008, and gives police officers in the town the ability — though not the mandate — to arrest people drinking outside, according to Police Chief Bernadette DiPino.
"I think it's a good tool for law enforcement officers to have in their tool box, to help them be proactive," said DiPino, who said she personally requested the council make the change. "Now the police officer has the ability to use their discretion and say, 'You know what, it's better if this person is taken into custody.'"
Officers can also choose to simply issue the person a criminal citation for the offense, rather than the civil citation previously handed out, and let them leave the scene, DiPino said.
Members of the council could not be reached late Monday.
DiPino said her department has worked hard since the mid-1990s to get rid of an old "laissez-faire attitude" about drinking in public in the town that was held by both officers and the general public.
But since 2008, officers have been limited to writing civil citations for violations, which sometimes "doesn't address the problem because you write someone a ticket, and they're still there, and can go out and do it again," DiPino said.
Police statistics from 2007 to 2011 show the total number of alcohol violations issued in the city, both to adults with open containers and to those under 21 in possession of alcohol, open or closed, has steadily risen.
The statistics show there were 1,347 such violations in 2007; 1,438 in 2008; 1,522 in 2009; 1,546 in 2010; and 1,598 in 2011.
Now, with the ability to arrest a particularly rowdy or disrespectful person violating the city's open-container law, police will be better able to combat the "special mindset" people who drink in public have, that the rules don't apply to them, DiPino said.
Officer Michael Levy, a police spokesman, agreed, saying there was concern among officers "about not having the necessary tools to handle underage drinking."
Levy said it had reached a point where some individuals disregarded the drinking-in-public law, to the extent that they came to Ocean City on vacation prepared to "factor the cost of the citation into their trip."
The threat of arrest will, hopefully, make people rethink cracking open a beer while walking down the sidewalk, he said.