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No Longer a Hot Idea : Alcohol: Drinking beer at the beach used to be a Southern California tradition, although an illegal one. But now the laws are being strictly enforced.

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 half of that image.

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

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

And when they do, it is often the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department they call.

“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 booted off the beach, Dailey said.

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Although the majority of those interviewed at beaches and parks recently were in favor of the longstanding alcohol ban, others called it overzealous law enforcement.

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.”

But enforcers say a blanket ban became essential because for years all too many beach- and park-goers were indeed getting plastered.

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

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Ordinances banning alcohol at parks and beaches are nothing new. Most were initiated as early as the 1950s, said Malibu lifeguard Lt. Steve Wood. But many Southlanders--and tourists--are not aware of the laws, he said. Others knowingly violate them because it used to be a rarely punished offense.

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

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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 to distinguish apple juice from beer.

Some people attempt to camouflage their alcohol in coffee thermoses or foam cups, or by 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 Beach and Harbors spokesman Ken Johnson.

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Keen-eyed officers can spot the fakes, and the punishment can range from a slap on the wrist to jail time.

Typically, those ignorant of the no-alcohol law 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. Arrests are possible for those with prior violations or involved in a disturbance.

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

No comprehensive statistics exist, but officials consistently say that alcohol-related problems 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 Los Angeles County Park Police.

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

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

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Although the no-drinking laws certainly leave some with a bad taste in their mouths, it is not only law enforcement types who believe 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-water mix is especially dangerous because of the potential for drownings.

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“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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