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Breathalyzers on the beach? Unlike Wildwood, most Shore police aren't wielding them

Wildwood is pretty much on its own in using in turning their wide beaches into one big underaged-drinking-while-sunning police breathalyzer checkpoint.

Still from a body cam video released by Wildwood police Wednesday night shows the Memorial Day weekend arrest of Emily Weinman, 20, of Philadelphia
Still from a body cam video released by Wildwood police Wednesday night shows the Memorial Day weekend arrest of Emily Weinman, 20, of PhiladelphiaRead moreScreenshot

WILDWOOD, N.J. — In body-cam video released this week, the Wildwood police officer can be seen lifting the compartment of his beach buggy, picking up a yellow portable breathalyzer wand and approaching a Philadelphia woman sitting on her beach towel with an open container of fruit.

Emily Weinman, 20, agrees to submit her breath to the testing device, which comes up negative, but the encounter quickly escalates to a violent arrest in which the officer pulled her hair, slammed her to the ground, and punched her twice, all of his actions filmed by an onlooker and viewed by millions.

Has the Jersey Shore become a place where police officers are going beach towel to beach towel with their breathalyzers?

Not in Atlantic City. Not in Margate. Not in Sea Isle. Not in North Wildwood. Not in Ventnor. Not in Ocean City. None of those towns use portable breathalyzers on their beaches.

Wildwood is pretty much on its own in using this breathalyzer strategy of turning their wide beaches into one big underage-drinking-while-sunning police checkpoint.

"I've never heard of police officers walking around with breathalyzers," said Stuart Green, a professor of law at Rutgers University. "Was he going blanket to blanket?"

Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano defended the use of the devices, saying his town has long been a magnet for thousands of drinking teenagers, and this is part of their attempt to rein it in.

But most other towns say they do not wield the breathalyzer devices on the beaches.

"We just don't use it," said Capt. John Stevenson of the neighboring North Wildwood police. "We have the beach manned with officers all the time in summer. We are looking for people that look obviously underage."

Alcohol is banned on the beach but tolerated by most local Shore towns. Most do not enforce those laws on relatively discreet adults with red Solo cups or beer in a koozie.  Typically in most towns, beach-towel harassment is limited to beach checkers looking for beach tags. But not on Wildwood's free beaches.

On Thursday, Wildwood police did not release any additional information or results of their internal investigation into the conduct of the three officers seen in the videos arresting Weinman.

As people continued to dissect the body-cam videos released Wednesday night by Wildwood, renewed attention was paid to the scenario that led to the escalation: the officer's words  — "You're about to get dropped" — and the wielding of the breathalyzers over the beach towel of a not particularly crowded area of the beach.

Chief Doug Biagi of Ventnor said the officer's words perhaps showed his inexperience as a Class II seasonal officer, typically hired by Shore towns to bulk up staffing during busy summer months. The Class II's are given police academy training and carry guns. They often are seeking full-time employment with the towns.

"Here's the stuff that hurts you: 'You're about to get dropped,' " Biagi said. "It's one of those things that you go, 'Oooh, here we go.' Then it goes into the mind-set. Did he want to get in a fight? People will push your buttons. Would I retrain them on sensitivity, words to use, de-escalation? We always try to turn a negative into a positive.

"It goes with experience and maturity," Biagi said. "If those are the words you've grown up with, when you're a cop it changes."

Civil rights attorney Paul Hetznecker said an officer would have to have reasonable suspicion of an offense to order Weinman to take a breathalyzer and demand her name. She agreed to the breath test but refused to give her name, angering the officer.

"You can't just approach anyone on the beach and say we want to give you a breathalyzer," he said. "That's a Fourth Amendment violation."

Green, the Rutgers professor, said people are entitled to an expectation of being left alone without reasonable suspicion of an offense. "She was resistant," he said, "but private citizens have the right to sit on their beach blanket without being harassed by police if they aren't committing an offense."

Hetznecker questioned why the officers continued to pursue their investigation of the woman once she had agreed to the breath test and proved that she had not been drinking. She had told them some alcohol nearby, Twisted Tea, belonged to her aunt.

"When she blows the breathalyzer and it comes up negative, they're done," said Hetznecker, who has defended police protesters who are shouting at police. "It's an overreach. Any reason to come back to her is gone. She makes a statement to you, that's covered by the First Amendment. Police have to be trained to de-escalate and deal with the negative reaction to their authority. It's really important that police are trained to deal with colorful language and obscene language. There's been a lack of training on those protections overall."

Defense attorney Matthew Reisig says the law requires anyone suspected of drinking and driving to submit to a breath test but that does not apply to someone who is not driving.

"Can he carry the device? Sure. Can he ask someone to provide a [breath sample]? Sure.  Can he require it? No," Reisig said. "There's no statute in New Jersey that would provide that a person can be charged with refusal to submit to a test to determine if they've consumed alcohol while underage in a public place."

Meanwhile, Weinman's attorney, Stephen Dicht, said the young mother had been under a lot of stress since the incident and was feeling "banged up." He continued to contend that Wildwood police responded with excessive force, and questioned the mayor's earlier comments that a woman was harder than a man to subdue.

"Thank God it wasn't a black person," Dicht said.  "A black person wouldn't have gotten out alive."