By REID TUCKER
What a difference a week makes.
The afternoon of March 26 was as dead as dead gets on the beach in front of Scenic Highway 98’s Whale’s Tail restaurant, the de facto hub of Spring Break in Walton County. A week later, the beaches off State Road 30A teemed with teenaged vacationers from Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma from the afternoon until well after 10 p.m.
There being said, underage drinkers and excessively wild revelry, by far the most prevalent Spring Break-related problems, were in relatively short supply on either Wednesday even though they fell smack-dab in the middle of a busy Spring Break season. This reporter saw only one underage drinking arrest during a nine-hour shift on March 26 and only four on April 2.
In fact, the most dangerous character on the beach either day was a 7-foot bull shark seen cruising the surf at dusk around Topsail Hill Preserve, but even he wasn’t causing problems. He was, after all, most likely a local. Other permanent residents of the shoreline communities have continued to be supportive of law enforcement’s efforts to curb the problems associated with the influx of Spring Breakers to the area, and littering, traffic violations and loud parties are already a much less-common occurrence than last year.
The lack of excitement was good news for the 20-plus Walton County Sheriff’s Office deputies who patrol the south end beaches, especially midway through the seven-week stretch of Spring Break – the general lack of craziness meant that the zero-tolerance stance on underage drinking was having its desired effect.
Nevertheless, the desired effect was only really in full effect for a few days at a time, said Deputy Chad Biernacki, a nine-year veteran of the beach and marine patrol unit.
“Our strategy works for about four days at a time,” he said. “Saturdays are slow for us because it’s check-in and check-out day, then Sunday is really busy again. Monday, Tuesday and usually Wednesday are busy too, but by Thursday and Friday they’ve generally figured out that we aren’t playing, that we’re serious. Word spreads fast out here on the beach. Then that group leaves on Saturday and a whole new group comes the next week and it starts all over again.”
The figures don’t lie: more than 1,000 arrests and notices to appear have been made so far this year at the rate of about 35 per day, though some days have seen physical arrests hover in the 50-ish range. That number shows little sign of abating until the last of the Spring Breakers have headed home from their yearly pilgrimage to the Gulf.
Every time someone is arrested for underage drinking in Walton County they’re charged with a misdemeanor and this year (unlike 2013) most get booked and carted off to the Walton County Jail. Once there, offenders are booked and levied a $320 bond – a process that can take eight hours – and if someone is caught with marijuana, another favorite Spring Break vice, they could face a fine of $1,000 or more.
Though the arrest and booking process is indeed lengthy and though it does involve more personal and resources to haul offenders to jail, Biernacki said the pay-off is that the total alcohol-related offenses have been substantially curtailed.
“It’s not fun arresting people for underage drinking, but it’s worth it when you can help to stop the DUIs, rapes and fights that tend to result from people making bad decisions while intoxicated,” Biernacki said. “The Sheriff’s Office’s stance (on underage drinking) is working because when you can enforce these things early you see a big reduction in more serious calls later in the week.”
March 26 was pretty slow as arrests go, but April 2 was busier. Atlanta-area high-schoolers, who had their Spring Break vacation postponed due to February’s ice-outs, were out in force in Seaside, where the bulk of the law enforcement presence had shifted by last week. Instances of underage drinking were few, and none that this reporter was present for resulted in a trip to jail, but other offences like underage possession of tobacco were more common as hundreds of teenagers partied into the night on the beach near 30A’s shops and restaurants.
Deputy Eric Traugott said the main differences between high school and college students when it comes to Spring Break problems is that younger offenders are better about hiding their alcohol use and are more apt to run from law enforcement officers. In fact, a foot chase broke out earlier that same day. Despite these differences, the fact that many suspects are not yet 18 means most get issued an order to appear in court and are then turned over to their parents.
“They’re often more afraid of their mom and dad finding out they’ve been drinking or smoking than they are of [deputies],” Traugott said. “I try to counsel the kids a little bit before their folks arrive. I tell them there is more to life than drinking and getting in trouble. I try to impress on them that there’s no need to grow up too fast.”
By REID TUCKER