Florida’s Spring Break Court: A Potentially Life-saving Event
Being a judge in what many young people refer to the as the “Spring Break Party State,” I am familiar with the impact that “Springbreakers” have on law enforcement, our judicial system, and our economy. Not surprisingly, a 2011 study revealed that Florida is the state Springbreakers chose most often, with Panama City Beach being the number one destination of choice. In terms of gender, 60% of Springbreakers are female and 40% are male, with more than 80% being 21 years of age or older.
While college-age Springbreakers predominate, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco reports that, of the total Florida underage (under age 21) drinking arrests during March, 70% will be made in in Panama City and Panama City Beach in conjunction with Spring Break. This typically yields over 700 underage defendants charged with unlawful consumption or possession of alcohol. Given these numbers, it is not surprising that many Springbreakers will find themselves in contact with Florida’s judicial system.
To accommodate the spike in alcohol-related offenses, jurisdictions such as Bay County, Florida (Panama City Beach) have reacted by increasing law enforcement presence and adding additional court dockets, which have become known as “Spring Break Court.”
Given the transient nature of Springbreakers, Spring Break Court sessions have been deemed necessary to provide expedited disposition of the criminal and ordinance violations that otherwise would be regularly scheduled for initial arraignment 2-4 weeks after citation or arrest. Without such expedited dockets, most defendants would have necessarily departed the jurisdiction of the court with arrest warrants having to be issued for those who returned to classes and were unable or unmotivated to return to Florida for arraignment.
The Spring Break Courts provide expedited due process with next day service and the opportunity to qualify for a diversion program that, if elected will, in most cases, provide avoidance of a formal conviction in return for a fine, 8 hours of community service, restitution if any, and a speedy return to their home jurisdiction. If a defendant desires to contest their charge, provision is made for a trial at a later date. Unsurprisingly, few opt for this alternative. This system of due process works well in accommodating large numbers of defendants who, after regaining sobriety, generally regret their actions and are eager to get back to more conventional lifestyles.
Do “quick justice” Spring Break Courts really serve the interests of justice? From the perspective of whether Springbreakers are afforded substantive and procedural due process, those trained in the law would find little fault. From the perspective of those in treatment and addiction disciplines who deal with young people who have begun to regularly abuse alcohol and are beginning to develop dependency, the verdict would not be as positive. It is important not to focus solely on legal due process but to also consider social due process and the impact on society of a young person who may be on his or her way to dependency. It is possible, without unnecessarily delaying legal due process, to determine whether an underage drinking offender is headed toward a dependence problem.
A screening and brief intervention can be accomplished through self-administered surveys that can be completed and graded using court volunteers or those from the treatment community. For underage defendants who do show signs of developing dependency, a brief intervention with counselling and recommendations for follow-up could make the difference in addressing these issues early and reducing the likelihood of future contact with the justice system.
At the very least, parents or guardians of underage defendants deserve to know that alcohol abuse played a major role in an unfortunate and dangerous Spring Break experience for that young person for whom they care. They need to be urged to become involved, because left ignored, another unfortunate experience might lead to tragedy.
Development and implementation of Spring Break Court is the result of the ingenuity, dedication, and cooperation of a community of devoted justice professionals. The result has been a system that accords legal due process to hundreds of underage defendants. Using that same ingenuity and dedication, a screening and brief intervention component could be incorporated into these courts just as it was feasible to incorporate a community service component into the judicial process. An hour less of sweeping streets or picking up trash could be devoted to screening and brief intervention. The addition of this component would truly provide the fullest measure of individual due process and make Spring Break a potentially life-saving event for some young person.
Judge Karl Grube is a Senior Judge in Florida and a Judicial Outreach Liaison. He has worked with Responsibility.org for 15 years, especially on hardcore drunk driving issues. Judge Grube joined the Judicial Education Advisory Committee in 2002 and helped prepare the Hardcore Drunk Driving Judicial Guide. In 2014, he taught courtroom trial procedure and practice at the first-of-its-kind law school course, sponsored by Responsibility.org, aimed at educating students about the complexities of DUI cases at Suffolk University Law School.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Responsibility.org) or any Responsibility.org member.*