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Sheriff's DUI Stats: Only One Arrest Linked to Siesta Key Beach

Discussion with county commissioners turns to ordinances and other suggestions to manage drunkenness on the beaches.

In response to the public outcry for a ban of alcohol on public beaches due to recent drunk driving accidents, including one that was fatal, the Sarasota Sheriff's Office laid down some numbers for the Sarasota County Commissioners on Thursday.

In 2011, there were 639 calls for sheriff services at the public beach or on the public accesses, which made up 14 percent of the total calls on Siesta Key, Major Kevin Kenney said. Of those, 116 resulted in criminal charges and 83 were alcohol-related. Underage possession accounted for all but five of those calls. "Of those five DUIs, only one had a definitive location of the beach," Kenney said.

Community members, including the family of Donna Chen who was killed in January by a drunken driver while jogging, have been vocal about the need to ban drinking on the beach. A brawl that reportedly involved 30 people and resulted in six arrests fueled the debate.

At their March 13 meeting, the commissioners agreed to ask the sheriff's office for ideas, and the sheriff responded with the stats. 

"We’re here to give you information so you guys can hear it about what we have and what we’re seeing in numbers," Sheriff Tom Knight said to the commissioners, emphasizing a willingness to discuss potential ordinances. "It’s not conducive to good relationships for all involved for us to just back into our corners and defend numbers. We’re not here this morning to do that."

The commissioners turned to other suggestions, such as adding cameras to the parking lot and a potential ordinance that would allow officers to interact with people whom they believe are drunk. 

When referring to emails the commissioners have received, Commissioner Nora Patterson, who lives on Siesta Key, said, "One of the thoughts has been, if someone is clearly drunk and at the beach ... if they’re obviously incapable of driving safely, to take their keys away."

The sheriff batted that suggestion away noting that taking away their keys is a violation of fourth amendment rights, and also noted that searching coolers would be against the constitution if done in the absence of probable cause or reasonable suspicion, he said.

"If we had the authority that other nations have, we could stand at the gates and entrances of all parking lots and throw their keys in a bag and they have to come back and get them from us, and we test them for DUI before we give their keys back," Knight said. "Although that would be labor intensive, it would be a perfect scenario. But again, we’d be violating their fourth amendment rights to undo search and seizure."

Commissioner Christine Robinson described the meeting to Patch as information-gathering, and said the commissioners were awaiting more information before determining if a drinking ban was possible. "Today we were getting the framework in terms of DUIs," she said. "I'm not going to speculate [about the ban] until we have the rest of the information."

The Commission was also awaiting requests to the Florida Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit in certain areas on Siesta Key and to add reflectors on parts of the roads that curve. 

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