Recently, the Big Rapids city ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to have open intoxicants in public was changed. It’s now a civil infraction. The decriminalization of this statute is a positive thing. The ordinance that made it a misdemeanor was, no doubt, enacted with Ferris State University students in mind. Kids walking from party to party or from party to bar with a beer in their hand were the obvious target of the original ordinance. Police officers were able to stop anyone they suspected of possessing an open container of alcohol on the sidewalk in order to further investigate the situation. Officers often used the Open Intoxicants Law as a pretext to stop someone and determine if that person was underage or breaking some other law. Changing the ordinance to a civil infraction will not prevent the Officers from using the ordinance in that way, though. Officers can still stop someone if they suspect that person of committing a civil infraction to further investigate the situation. The only difference this change in the law will create is that the person being stopped will not end up with a criminal conviction on their record.
Let’s face it; part of the college experience includes alcohol and parties. It is often the first time young people are away from their parents and put in a position of being constantly surrounded by their peers. Because one aspect of college culture is parties, bars and alcohol, some students are bound to get caught with alcohol in public. I agree that we must encourage kids to drink responsibly and legally, and drafting laws and regulations that dictate how, when and where someone can drink alcohol is obviously a part of that process. However, the change in the city ordinance will not take away from that process. A ticket will still be issued to anyone found to be consuming alcohol in public, and the person will still be responsible for paying a fine. However, that person will no longer be left with a permanent mark on their criminal history, one that could potentially serve as a barrier to future employment and military service, for something as minor as holding an open beer on the sidewalk. After all we’re dealing with kids, many of whom are making some decisions for the first time. Sticking kids with a criminal history based on a youthful indiscretion as minor as having an open beer in public just doesn’t seem right. Thankfully the City Attorney and the City Police Department agree.
Prior to the recent change, Open Intoxicants in Public was a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum jail term of 90 days and/or a maximum fine of $500. Now it is a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $225. It’s akin to a speeding ticket or a ticket for littering. The reality of the situation is that previously, a person who was convicted of Open Intoxicants in, more often than not was sentenced only to a fine anyway. Rarely if ever were they sentenced to any other sanctions like jail or probation. The only real difference this change in law has made is that now, kids who are caught drinking in public aren’t left with the stigma of having a criminal history.
It’s good for Big Rapids that the change was made. There will be fewer kids who come to here for school and leave with a misdemeanor on their criminal record.