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Gasparilla to test Tampa's change to citations for open alcohol containers

Published Jan. 24, 2012

TAMPA — Cracking open a can of beer on Tampa's streets is no longer a crime, but anyone carrying an open container off the Gasparilla parade route Saturday will face a fine.

The first time, it's $75. By the fourth, it's $450.

The City Council unanimously voted in October to make the open container law a civil issue, like a speeding ticket. Violators won't face arrest, but will have to pay up.

The ordinance faces its biggest test this weekend: the rowdy pirate invasion, where tens of thousands imbibe.

Police have arrested between 250 and 400 people at recent Gasparilla parades on alcohol charges alone. If those numbers continue, the city could make at least $20,000. It will go into the general revenue fund, police officials said.

Underage drinking is still a crime.

Though the new approach will be in force at Gasparilla, the idea was born about 10 months ago on South Howard Avenue, where hundreds bar-hop each weekend.

Officer Jason Cella had seen too many well-meaning people wander outside a bar with a beer in hand. They weren't driving. They weren't underage. And they didn't appear to be harming anyone.

He sent an email to the chief suggesting the city decriminalize the carrying of an open container.

Police Chief Jane Castor thought it was a good idea. She didn't like the idea of sending out-of-town paradegoers home with a criminal record.

"Drinking and driving and consuming alcohol in the street are two different issues," she said Monday.

Ellen Snelling, the chairwoman of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, was wary when she first heard about the ordinance. Snelling thought it might lead to more rule-breakers and rowdy drinkers.

But after talking with law enforcement, she supports the approach.

"There's still a penalty," she said.

She says police have told her they expect the citation-writing process will be quicker than charging someone. It could lead to more enforcement at Gasparilla, she said.

"We'll see how it goes," she said.

Authorities revved up their education campaign this week, visiting schools to announce their "zero tolerance" for underage drinking.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia also sent out a pre-recorded phone message to parents of middle- and high school-age children.

"Police will be cracking down," Buckhorn warns.

Every Tampa police officer will work Saturday — either along the route or in their zones, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

"Our goal is to make Gasparilla as safe and fun as possible," Castor said. "We want everyone to go home with a neck full of beads and not in handcuffs."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

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