Following an alcohol-fueled St. Patrick’s Day fight on Siesta Key Beach and two recent drunk-driving incidents that injured pedestrians on the Key, the push for an alcohol ban on county beaches has gained further steam.
Originally sparked by the death of Donna Chen, who was killed by an allegedly drunken driver in January, the proposed alcohol ban has garnered strong opinions on either side of the debate. Some see the ban as a necessary measure to prevent further tragedies and protect the family-friendly atmosphere of area beaches. Others see it as an encroachment on the rights of law-abiding citizens wishing to enjoy a beachside alcoholic beverage.
Despite the outcry from some members of the community seeking the alcohol ban, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and county commissioners aren’t making any major changes to the ways in which they’ve been addressing the issue.
At a workshop Thursday, March 29, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office officials addressed the issue with county commissioners. Maj. Kevin Kenney said the Sheriff’s Office was present to present the facts and express a willingness to work with commissioners on ordinances.
The Sheriff’s Office presented its collection of 2011 data regarding the number of calls on the beach with a breakdown of which calls were alcohol related.
Of the 116 criminal charges at the public beach or beach accesses in 2011, the Sheriff’s Office reported that 83 of the charges were alcohol related. Seventy-three of those charges were for the underage possession of alcohol. The remaining charges included four charges of disorderly intoxication, one charge of selling or serving alcohol under age and five DUI charges.
The report goes on to specify that of those five DUI charges, the earliest DUI arrest occurred after 8 p.m., and only one arrestee was identified as drinking at the beach prior to his or her arrest.
When comparing these numbers to the Sarasota County Parks and Recreation 2011 statistics, which showed 2.4 million visitors to the public beach, the Sheriff’s Office determined that in 2011, there were .03 alcohol-related criminal charges per 1,000 visitors.
Sheriff’s Office officials said that many of the seemingly common-sense solutions to prevent further accidents were unconstitutional. Sheriff Tom Knight said common suggestions include searching people’s coolers or taking away their keys, but that these are violations of people’s Fourth Amendment rights, and that it isn’t illegal to be drunk on the beach.
“My office is committed to arresting drunk drivers, no matter what comes out of this dialogue and what you decide to do,” said Knight.
After hearing the stats, the commission stated that its main interests lie in providing the Sheriff’s Office with any tools it might need to better enforce the existing laws, but there were no specific requests. The county took no action regarding the ban.