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May 17, 2023

Wildwood weighs strict law banning alcohol on boardwalk, beaches

City leaders have proposed ordinances to curb underage drinking, increase penalties and give police more authority to make arrests

Government Alcohol
Wildwood Alcohol Laws Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Wildwood board of commissioners has proposed banning alcohol on the boardwalk and beaches, with the exception of approved bars and restaurants. Another plan would revise local laws to give police more authority to arrest juveniles.

Wildwood could soon approve a pair of laws that seek to keep alcohol off the boardwalk and beaches.

Last week, Wildwood's board of commissioners introduced two ordinances to deal with public drinking by updating municipal laws.

One proposed ordinance would prohibit the consumption, display or possession of any alcoholic beverage on the entire beach and boardwalk. This would apply to all types of containers, whether open or closed, except in designated bars and restaurants. Violators could face fines of up to $2,000 and potentially 90 days in jail, which are the maximum penalties for misdemeanors.

A second ordinance would follow in the footsteps of Ocean City and Sea Isle City, each of which revised local laws to deal problems involving juveniles. It would designate underage drinking, alcohol possession and other offenses as "breach of peace" violations. This would gives police the authority to arrest violators and potentially hold them until they are picked up by parents or legal guardians, depending on the offense. Among the other violations noted in the breach of peace ordinance are loud noise and smoking in prohibited areas.

City solicitor Louis DeLollis told the Cape May County Herald the alcohol ordinance is an amendment to the current law banning open containers on the beach and boardwalk. DeLollis said it's meant to eliminate arguments with police about whether a container is open or closed. The ordinance would prohibit alcohol in these locations altogether, with signage displayed on the boardwalk to notify people of the law. 

Wildwood made national news in 2018 when a viral video showed a Philadelphia woman getting tackled on the beach by a seasonal police officer who had suspected her of underage drinking. He and another officer claimed they had spotted the 20-year-old woman with open containers, although the cans she had with her were not opened. The woman passed a breathalyzer test and said the alcohol belonged to her aunt, who was not present at the time.

An argument between the woman and the two officers escalated, in part, because police stated that the alcohol was in "open display," in her possession, without a person of legal drinking age present. When the woman refused to give police her full name, an officer told her she was being arrested and she tried to walk away. That's when she was pursued and tackled to the ground by one of the officers, who had warned her she was "about to get dropped."

Cape May County prosecutors declined to charge the two officers who were involved. The woman ultimately accepted a plea deal for a disorderly conduct charge. She later filed a civil lawsuit against Wildwood and was awarded $325,000 in a settlement with the city.

DeLollis said the two ordinances are a response to frustration over the state's juvenile justice reforms made in 2020. Those reforms were intended to address systemic racial disparities by limiting youth detentions and formal court proceedings, which can leave minors with troubling records into adulthood.

But some shore communities believe the reforms have hampered police from maintaining order, especially among the annual crowds of young people who flock to the state's beaches. 

In January, Ocean City passed a municipal ordinance allowing police to detain minors for breach of peace violations such as breaking curfew, excessive noise, littering and vandalism, among other common issues that have led to complaints. Instead of giving unruly teens curbside warnings, Ocean City officers will be empowered to bring juveniles to the police station and call their parents to come pick them up, without filing any charges. These violations do not create permanent records.

In Sea Isle City, lawmakers enacted a 10 p.m. curfew for minors and restricted the use of backpacks for all people during certain hours of the night.

Cape May County Prosecutor Jeff Sutherland, who played an advisory role in Ocean City's amendments, told PhillyVoice in January that the city's goal was not to circumvent the state's juvenile justice reforms. He said it was to modernize local laws for the purpose of crowd control, citing events like the unsanctioned H2Oi car rally in Wildwood that resulted in two deaths and several injuries last September.

The ordinance in Ocean City wasn't revised to address scenarios like the 2018 alcohol incident on the beach in Wildwood, he argued.

"That's not really something that an ordinance like this would be designed for," Sutherland said.

The police chief in Ocean City explained that offenses such as underage drinking and marijuana consumption would still be covered by state law rather than breach of peace violations.

DeLollis could not be reached for comment, but told the Cape May County Herald that Wildwood's ordinances seek to broaden the circumstances in which officers can use their discretion to make arrests. For offenses like underage drinking, police would still rely on state statute, but might be able to use municipal penalties, like fines and suspensions of driving privileges, to further deter unwanted behaviors. 

“On the local level, the state hamstrung the police’s ability to do anything," DeLollis said. "What we are looking to do at the city level is to see what tools we can put in the police arsenal to do what is called for."