OCEAN CITY -- Like countless others before him, the stocky 20-year-old man had come to Maryland's seaside resort to party and to soak up the rays.
He partied. Now he was waiting to see if he was to get burned. Not by the sun this time, but by the bespectacled man in the black robe seated behind the polished wood bench inside Ocean City's District Court building on 65th Street.
It's not listed in any of the glossy brochures touting the vacation spot's attractions. But the Ocean City District Court -- a satellite facility of Worcester County's central court system in nearby Snow Hill -- is where thousands of vacationers end up each year when their quest for a good time turns bad.
The court handles traffic and minor criminal cases throughout the year. Unlike other District Courts around the state, its legal fare does not include civil matters.
The docket is light during cold-weather months -- from December through February last winter only 725 cases came before the judges. But in June, July and August, when the town's population can hit 325,000 on a weekend, the number of hearings is more than seven times that many as tourists flood the resort.
"Most of these people are basically good people who come to the beach and use poor judgment," says Richard A. Parolski, one of Ocean City's busiest defense lawyers. "Usually it's something that starts out in a festive carnival atmosphere and ends up with criminal charges."
Judge Richard R. Bloxom, who splits the court's four-day hearing week with Judge Robert D. Horsey, recalls an old saying among resort veterans: "A lot of people who come down here park their brains on the other side of the bridge."
"People come here and see this place as a giant amusement park," he says. "But the people who live here and the people who come here are entitled to the same protection from this kind of activity as they are in their own home towns."
Last June through August, arrests by Ocean City police meant 5,568 cases in court -- nearly half the total handled by all the district courts in the four counties that make up the Lower Eastern Shore.
The majority of cases the Ocean City court handles are traffic-related, but last summer, about 2,270 were misdemeanor criminal charges such as disorderly conduct, underage drinking, carrying an open container of alcohol, shoplifting, assault and battery, drug possession and urinating in public.
Despite the hot, muggy air outside, the air-conditioned courtroom was so chilly one mid-July day that the prosecutor wore a tweed sports coat just to stay warm.
Uniformed officers filled two bench rows as civilian witnesses and defendants sat quietly nearby.
Some people chewed gum. Others impatiently crossed and uncrossed their sun-tanned legs. The crowd was mostly young. Many of the women were bottle-blonde, and the men wore their " hair in pony tails.
Dress is casual
The attire, as usual, was informal, for this is a beach resort, and ties were rare among the spectators. Even a few lawyers wore boat shoes. The preppy look was common. This could be The Gap-goes-to-court or Misdemeanors-wear-khaki.
In a typical case, Assistant State's Attorney Daniel R. Mumford finished reading an account of what led to a 20-year-old's arrest for disorderly conduct a month earlier.
He told the court the understatement of the day: "He was extremely intoxicated."
Everyone, including the defendant, looked to Judge Bloxom, who has heard all the stories before. Or almost all of them.
"What an extraordinary statement of facts, even for Ocean City," he said. The defendant, a vacationer from Pennsylvania, had staggered blind-drunk to a private home, vomited and used the porch as a toilet, and then wobbled into the house, where he made another mess before passing out in the homeowner's bed.
The police hauled the man off to the Ocean City jail which, like the District Court, is a modern facility that opened this spring.
Public defender Carol Hanson, on loan from Howard County to ease the burden on the small Worcester County public defender's office, told the judge her client had been drinking at a friend's place when he went outside to relieve himself, got lost and, nearly a quarter-mile away, stumbled into what he thought -- wrongly -- was his friend's house.
She asked the judge to give the defendant, who pleaded guilty, a verdict of probation before judgment, meaning he wouldn't have to go home to Pennsylvania with a criminal record.
Judge Bloxom looked down at the defendant, who was with his fiancee. "I can't imagine having to clean up after you," he said.
Because the young man had never been in trouble with the law, though, the judge gave the "PBJ" and a suspended 30-day jail sentence. He also fined the man $300 and ordered him pay $20 for a crate he broke at the house and to seek drug and alcohol counseling.
The court's judges generally show compassion for first offenders. Not wishing to give young adults criminal records, they generally dispense fines and orders for community service and probation. For defendants with criminal records, however, the judges don't hesitate to impose jail terms.
The average law-breaker here is a white male between the ages of 16 and 25, says Pfc. Barry L. Neeb, a spokesman for the Ocean City Police Department. And more times than not, the individual has consumed alcohol, drugs or both.
"A lot of time it's the first time these people have been on their own," said Private Neeb. "They're experiencing new-found freedom."
Serious crimes such as murder, rape and drug dealing are handled by the Ocean City Police Department's full-time staff of 89. Those cases usually end up in Circuit Court half-an-hour away in Snow Hill, the county seat.
But the majority of offenses -- the misdemeanors and traffic cases -- become the duty of the resort's 100 seasonal officers, who are usually young and eager for a taste of law enforcement but inexperienced.
The summer officers make mistakes in court, admitted Judge Bloxom. "It certainly presents opportunities for defense lawyers," said.
"By and large, the summer police officers do a good job, and a town like Ocean City really doesn't have much choice."
Some cases dropped
A recurring problem for Mr. Mumford is getting witnesses and complainants to show up. Because many live in Baltimore or Washington or outside Maryland, returning for a trial that may last 15 minutes is a hardship.
"I have to drop a lot of cases because of that," he said.
One of the most common -- and baffling -- law violations in Ocean City is young men urinating in public.
"There are plenty of comfort stations on the Boardwalk," said Judge Bloxom, "but people come here and start drinking, and I guess their inhibitions are relaxed."
In one such case a few years ago, an intoxicated young man was arrested for using a police cruiser as his target. He showed up in court apologetic, asking for leniency. He received probation before judgment, but was ordered to do community service.
"We had him washing police cars that summer," said Private Neeb. "There's a distinction between law and justice -- and sometimes justice prevails."