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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

How to make selective enforcement work for you

More than 250 people, mostly Montauk residents, concerned

More than 250 people, mostly Montauk residents, concerned about raucous behavior and noise in their community over the July Fourth weekend, voiced their concerns at the East Hampton Town Board meeting at the Montauk Firehouse on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. Credit: Doug Kuntz

When I was young, I didn't understand that no matter what a law says, what often is banned is acting the fool. And while a simple legal code expressed in such terms ("Dude, just don't act a fool, follow the Golden Rule and everything will be all cool") would be awesome, it would be too open to interpretation.

Instead what we have are specific laws, but selective enforcement.

A couple of weeks ago, the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee recommended to the East Hampton Town Board that drinking alcohol on the beaches of downtown Montauk be banned from midnight to 6 a.m., from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Does this mean the concerned citizens want drinking on those beaches banned from midnight until 6 a.m.? No. As East Hampton Town Deputy Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who spoke on the law suggested by town police, said, "We're not talking about people staying in a motel who want to go down to the beach and watch the sunset with a glass of wine."

They want a law that says huge groups of drunk and loud young people won't be tolerated, which is very hard to capture in an easily interpreted statute. How many is too many? How drunk is too drunk? How loud is too loud? So officers will let circumstances dictate, which isn't a bad idea, until it is.

This isn't the only beach-drinking ban to crop up on Long Island. Last summer, booze was kiboshed at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett when lifeguards are on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The law was requested by beachgoers who complained of drinkers' rowdy behavior and public urination.

So is it now illegal for middle-aged folks to quietly pour a little something into a red Solo cup while they watch waves and read that new Wright brothers biography? Nope.

What can get you in trouble is acting a fool on the beach and harshing everyone else's mellow. The drinking law, enforced by marine officers, traffic officers and lifeguards, is just the simplest thing to use to deter and punish.

The problem with selective enforcement is when the deciding factor on whether you get hassled or prosecuted is not how much of a pain you're being, but your color, ethnicity, age, sex or mode of dress.

Marijuana is an illegal drug that's de facto legal for anyone who can use it without acting like an idiot. If your marijuana use consists of watching "Game of Thrones" in the den while you light up and knock out a box of Boo-Berry cereal, you'll never get in trouble. But if you drive 111 mph on the way home, or get into a bar brawl while you're holding, you're going to get in trouble, ostensibly for marijuana, but really for being a fool.

But what if you're stopped not for being a jerk but for being a kid or black or Hispanic or having 16 spikes in your face? And searched? And they find pot? And you are charged?

Now there's a problem, because you didn't get in trouble for pot. And you didn't get in trouble for being a jerk and disturbing folks, because you weren't. You got in trouble for being a kid or Hispanic or black or having 16 spikes in your face. You got searched when a white guy or a middle-aged guy most likely never would have been, and that's what turned up an herb a "less suspicious" person never would have had to show.

This is the problem both with de facto laws and with policies like stop-and-frisk, on the beach or in the streets. We can end up punishing people not for what they do, but sometimes just for who they are. And it's why I'd rather have those officials overseeing beaches admit drinking is still legal and specifically criminalize and crack down on the rowdiness they seek to ban.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.