SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Nearly every seat was taken inside a small courtroom at City Hall on Thursday morning. None of the 32 people waiting to be arraigned by Judge Edmund Cyganiewicz were older than 25.
The majority of the day’s suspects were charged with public intoxication and most of them pleaded guilty, resulting in a $270 fine per person.
This charge is by far the most common crime resulting in arrests here during Spring Break, according to Gary Ainsworth, the city’s public information officer.
“Drinking in public is lawful, but becoming so intoxicated that you become a danger to yourself or others, then that’s when we take action, placing the individual in custody for the subject’s own protection,” Police Chief Randy Smith said.
In 2015 — excluding March — 294 people were arrested for public intoxication, Ainsworth said. Spring Break season alone — March 2015 — saw 273 such arrests.
“Everything else, if you look at the stats of arrests, they really fall in line,” he said. “They’re all about the same consistency each month, but that’s the biggest one.”
That number may rise substantially this year. Ainsworth said business owners and authorities are reporting a higher number of Spring Break visitors this year than in the past few years. It is unclear if the uptick is due to Panama City Beach banning alcohol consumption on beaches during March 2016. The famed Spring Break city’s council unanimously approved the ban last year following years of discussion, according to AL.com.
College students looking to let loose over the weeklong holiday may have decided to flock here instead.
Thursday, some holiday visitors waited to plead their case to Cyganiewicz in the cramped courtroom. Additional jailers had to be brought over from inland Cameron County on Thursday to assist with individuals in police custody, the court clerk mentioned before the proceedings.
A few students were there for more serious offenses, including felonies like possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. The man charged with that crime, a 20-year-old Harlingen resident, was found with cocaine and pills, Cyganiewicz said.
Other crimes of the day included unlawful possession of a firearm, driving while intoxicated and fighting in public. A young woman named Angel was charged with the latter crime. She pled no contest and defended her actions to the judge by sighting the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It was like Pearl Harbor in 1942, sir. It was in self-defense,” the 5-foot-3-inch woman said, wearing an orange jumpsuit. “We are longhorns; we are Texans, and we fight.”
Hushed scoffs and rolling eyes filled the room before Cyganiewicz found her guilty.
Ainsworth said some of the most memorable Spring Break crimes he knows of include someone trespassing after passing out underneath a house. One man was once charged with breaking and entering after he mistook another condo for his, which was located down the street.
“I mean, how drunk do you have to be to sit there and swear to yourself that you’re in the right place and your key is not working?” Ainsworth asked.
About half of those facing charges were Rio Grande Valley residents, while others hailed from around the state and country. The city prepared for the uptick in visitors by hiring “from one to 1,000” security personnel, Ainsworth said. He didn’t divulge an exact number for security reasons. He did indicate that it was a substantial amount.
As for other proposed security measures, several media outlets had previously reported the city was going to implement flying drones to survey the beaches this Spring Break. Ainsworth said that was false. Though the city plans to make that practice a reality, Spring Break preparations come first.
“The time that we need to train everybody, to get our paperwork back and everything, we expected it to be done by last Friday or possibly this Monday,” Ainsworth said. “It didn’t happen as fast as we wanted to, so we put that on hold so we could focus on this week.”
He said this month’s goal is to keep people safe.
“Public safety is our No. 1 priority,” Ainsworth said.