By REID TUCKER
Muggy and overcast weather Sunday was no deterrent to the thousands of Spring Breakers who continued to crowd along the five-mile stretch of Scenic Highway 98 in Miramar Beach.
On a related note, St. Patrick’s Day’s “luck of the Irish” wasn’t much help to the hundreds of underage drinkers arrested since Spring Break started about a week and a half ago. More than 600 misdemeanor arrests, most of them resulting in notices to appear in court, have been made by Walton County Sheriff’s Office deputies within the last 11 or 12 days alone. Maj. A.J. Smith, who heads up the Spring Break taskforce in the county, said the number of arrests will only increase as the annual pilgrimage of college students to the Gulf continues over the next few weeks.
“It never ends,” Smith said. “It never stops. I get down here about noon and I’ll leave about midnight, but the shifts continue around the clock, and we’re stopping people that whole time. I drink a lot of coffee.”
Spring Break duties are old hat for Smith, a 25-year veteran law enforcement officer who recently retired after six years as the chief of the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. Smith joined up with the WCSO three weeks ago to handle the implementation of a statewide underage drinking-prevention initiative. Running from March 4 through April 7 in conjunction with most public and private universities’ Spring Break schedules, the Florida Sheriffs Association’s “Operation Dry Spring” aims to keep visiting students safe and local residents sane by adopting a zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking.
Excessive alcohol consumption, especially by underage drinkers, has the potential to be extremely dangerous for the individuals involved, Smith said, though most aren’t really aware of just how hazardous it can be. Sheriffs Association figures show that nearly 190,000 individuals under the age of 21 were hospitalized in 2010 for injuries or conditions related to alcohol abuse. Furthermore, the use of synthetic drugs rose since 2010, with more than 7,000 reported incidents in 2011 compared to just about 3,000 the previous year.
“We really do want to protect Spring Breakers,” Smith said from the driver’s seat of an unmarked patrol car on St. Patrick’s Day. “We want them to enjoy themselves. We want them to come down here and have a good time so long as they obey the rules. Hopefully [Operation Dry Spring] will get the message across.”
Not even 10 minutes into the start of his Sunday patrol down the beachside highway, Smith swung the car onto the grassy sidewalk to check the IDs of a group of four young women and their male companion, seen lifting a cooler into the back of their truck. The cooler, though mostly filled with energy drinks and fruit juice, did contain a box of wine and a bottle of hard liquor. All five individuals, all from Oklahoma and none even 20 years old, were arrested for the underage possession of alcohol, a second-degree misdemeanor.
Since the stop was made only a few hundred yards from the WCSO mobile command center near a beachside restaurant, the nexus of the nearly 22 officers patrolling the south end of the county, the group was escorted inside and the paperwork began. IDs were checked again and phone calls were made. The whole process took about 30 minutes, with all five individuals being issued orders to appear in court or else pay a $300 fine, though none were taken to jail.
The women, cheerleaders at an Oklahoma university, were made to pour out the booze close by the mobile command center in a spot where Smith said “hundreds of people” had already done the same thing in the past few days. Stops like this went on for six hours into the early evening, during which time Smith arrested nine other individuals after making more than 10 stops to check out suspicious activity. Whether it was roving beach-goers with containers filled with mixed drinks, excessively loud parties or students passed out in the back of pickups, Smith usually issued at least one order to appear every time he got out of the car….
Read the full story in the March 21, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.