Higher fines proposed to curb public drunkenness

It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday, and young people in various states of inebriation stream out of a Federal Hill bar. Some are so intoxicated they appear to be walking into a stiff wind, staggering and clutching friends for support. One woman tries to steady herself on the hood of a car, then slowly slides to the ground.

A commotion breaks out and several police officers — stationed nearby for the seemingly inevitable late-night fight — hurry to pull two young men apart. A woman wearing a short leopard-print dress and towering high heels rushes over. One officer tells her to move along and go home.

The woman leans close to the officer, her face inches from his. "Don't yell at me! Don't [expletive] yell at me," she shouts.

Within a moment, the officer has handcuffed her. "What the [expletive] did I do wrong?" she screams, writhing and cursing the officer. Some bar patrons stop to watch, snickering and taking cell-phone photos. Others stumble past, glancing over with glazed eyes.

Similar scenes play out at closing time nearly every weekend in the popular stretch of bars and clubs in Federal Hill, police and community leaders say. Very intoxicated men and women vomit in doorways, smash flower pots, urinate and leave a trail of half-eaten pizza in the neighborhood, they say.

It's this excessive drunkenness, in Federal Hill and other neighborhoods, which City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young hopes to curb by increasing fines for spitting, urinating, public drinking and other "quality of life" offenses.

"We want them to come and have a good time, but we want them to leave the community the same way they found it," Young said. "We want them to be responsible."

Young will introduce a bill at tonight's council meeting that would increase fines for a variety of misdemeanors including scalping tickets and selling loose cigarettes.

People drinking or holding open containers of alcohol in public could be fined as much as $500, 10 times as much as the current penalty. Those found guilty of "disorderly drinking" could be forced to pay as much as $1,000 under the proposal.

Lighting up indoors, which was outlawed in 2008, could cost the smoker as much as $500 and the bar owner as much as $750.

Adults found urinating or defecating in public places could be fined as much as $1,000 — twice as much as the current fine.

The goal, says Young, is to discourage unhealthy and disrespectful behavior while raising revenue for the cash-strapped city.

The bill would provide judges with the discretion to impose the higher fee but not require them to do so, said Michelle Wirzberger, Young's director of legislative affairs. In a former job with the nonprofit Community Law Center, Wirzberger represented neighborhood groups in disputes with bars and nightclubs.

Paul Robinson, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, hopes the proposed fines would serve as "behavior modification" to discourage public drunkenness in the area near Cross Street Market, the center of the area's youthful bar scene which he describes as "spiraling out of control."

"The neighborhood is besieged," said Robinson. "We're held captive in our homes. And it's as scary for the [intoxicated youth] as for anyone else. There's a prevailing consensus that someone has to die down there before something changes."

Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, a coalition of restaurants and bars, said that his organization would welcome the stiffer penalties. The group covers overtime pay for four officers to patrol the Cross Street area.

Bartenders are trained to avoid "overserving" intoxicated patrons, but many young people arrive at the bars already drunk, down shots or bar-hop, making it harder to keep tabs on them.

Ultimately, people need to take responsibility for their own behavior, he said. "There's a completely different attitude in the youth of today," which manifests itself in their interactions with police, he said.

Early Saturday morning, those interactions included a man who pulled down his pants and "mooned" people near a police patrol car and several young men and women who argued with police when told to move along after the bars had closed.

Officers arrested two men in addition to the young woman who continued screaming and struggling with an officer until she was put in a police van.

Other intoxicated people weaved through the streets and passed out in parking lots. A barefoot young woman sat weeping on a curb while a man said to her, "Get the [expletive] up. Get the [expletive] up," then walked away.

There are fights near Mad River and Mother's bars and a handful of arrests nearly every weekend night, said Sgt. Eric Kowalcyzk, community relations officer for the Southern District. Most people spend several hours in Central Booking and are released without charges, he said.

"In a crowd situation, you give people two or three warnings, and if they don't listen, they go in the wagon," he said. "We always start out very politely, but we represent the authority of the state. There are eight officers and 1,000 people. If we lose the ability to maintain control, we could have a riot or a dangerous situation."

Kowalcyzk said he would spend the next day combing social networking websites, to see what photos or videos of the arrests might be posted online.

Deputy Maj. Margaret Barillaro of the Southern District said the bars in Federal Hill and other areas "monopolize" the attention of officers on weekend evenings. And she is concerned about the safety of the patrons.

"I worry about the girls in particular," she said, gesturing to a pair of young women laboring past in short skirts and four-inch heels. "They don't realize what a dangerous situation they're putting themselves in."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.



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