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Putting a Cork in It : Zealous Officers With 'Zero Tolerance' Enforce Beach, Park Alcohol Ban

July 23, 1994|ERIC SLATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Surrounded by sand, slathered in sunscreen and holding the coldest of beers in your hot hand, you are sprawled out and gulping down the California Dream.

Until an ominous shadow blocks your sun, pours out your beer and hands you a $50 ticket.

If Los Angeles beaches are known nationwide as the place to catch West Coast rays and a summer beer buzz, law enforcement officials are going out of their way to change one-half of that image.

It is illegal to drink on all public beaches and at the hundreds of city and county parks in Los Angeles, they point out, and--unlike the openness of a decade or two ago--officers no longer let a little tan-time imbibing slide.

At Malibu beaches, lifeguards patrol on four-wheelers and in pickups, and employ Gargantuan binoculars that can quite literally help them spot a beer can a mile away.

And when they do, it's often the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department they call. No leniency should be expected.

"We have zero tolerance," said Sheriff's Sgt. Marty Dailey.

Deputies will write about 45 citations--typically costing $50 apiece--at Malibu-area beaches on an average weekend day, and hundreds more on a big holiday. For every person cited, four or five others are warned, have their alcohol taken away and are sometimes even booted from the beach, Dailey said.

While the majority of those interviewed at beaches and in Valley parks this past week were in favor of the alcohol ban--which has been in effect in most places for decades--others called it a perfect example of overzealous American law enforcement.

After all, who ever heard of a French police officer pouring out a picnicker's bottle of Bordeaux?

Sitting at a Chatsworth park, sipping noontime Budweisers, a couple who identified themselves only as John and Ellen said they and other responsible drinkers are needlessly punished for the irresponsibility of a few.

"We're not talking about getting plastered," Ellen said. "Leave people alone."

The enforcers of the law say a blanket ban became more and more essential because for years all too many beach- and park-goers were indeed getting plastered.

"People would come to the beach, drink all day, and by afternoon become pretty nasty," said Dailey.

Ordinances banning alcohol from parks and beaches are nothing new, with most initiated as early as the 1950s, said Malibu lifeguard Lt. Steve Wood. But many Southlanders--and tourists to the area--still aren't aware of the laws, he said. Others knowingly violate them because doing so used to be a rarely punished offense.

By the mid-1970s, though, alcohol-related drownings, assaults and post-picnic car accidents had become a serious problem, and agencies began cracking down.

Police, park rangers and lifeguards now patrol Southland hot spots regularly, searching for the telltale glint of a beer bottle.

Officers eye open coolers and ask to look in closed ones. (They must ask--and you can say no--unless they have probable cause to believe a violation has occurred, according to the American Civil Liberties Union). They have even taken to sniffing at cups in an attempt to distinguish apple juice from beer.

The concerted effort has driven drinking sun seekers to resourcefulness, as they now attempt to camouflage their alcohol by swigging from coffee thermoses or Styrofoam cups, or even sucking on alcohol-soaked fruit.

"There is a small cottage industry. . . . They have a small cellophane wrapper that says 'Pepsi' on it and you wrap it around your beer can," said Department of Beaches and Harbors spokesman Ken Johnson.

The keen-eyed cop, however, can spot the fake, and the punishment can range from a metaphorical slap on the wrist to the literal jailing.

Typically, those ignorant of the no-alcohol law--usually evident by their chugging away openly--will lose their contraband and may be asked to leave the park.

Those caught trying to hide their drinking will probably receive a citation of about $50 and a court date. And arrests are possible for those with prior violations or those who have been involved in a disturbance.

If the penalties seem harsh, officials say the payoffs have been worth it.

Because several agencies are involved in enforcing the laws, no comprehensive statistics exist, but officials consistently say that alcohol-related problems--ranging from drownings to automobile accidents to assaults and even murders--have decreased considerably from the freewheeling times of 15 or 20 years ago.

"There's less fights, less traffic accidents, less injuries," said Chief John Zrofsky of the L.A. County Park Police.

The job is far from complete, however. Alcohol remains "probably our biggest problem" at parks, said Zrofsky. "It takes up a major portion of my officers' time."

For those dead-set on drinking at a park, special group permits are available. They are not easily obtained, however. Among other things, the group must hire at least one security guard during the event and purchase a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance.

While the no-drinking laws certainly leave some with a bad taste in their mouths, it's not only law enforcement types who think such regulation is a good idea.

Visitors waiting for clouds to burn off at Zuma Beach one recent afternoon overwhelmingly supported the ban, saying an alcohol-and-ocean mix is especially dangerous because of the potential for drownings.

"It doesn't belong on the beach," said Gabriel Gagnon of North Hollywood. "I've been to beaches where they allow alcohol, and it isn't worth it."

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