No longer illegal just to be drunk in public

2013-01-19T19:45:00Z 2013-01-20T23:46:04Z No longer illegal just to be drunk in publicBob Kasarda, (219) 548-4345
January 19, 2013 7:45 pm  • 

Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said he does not believe the change this past summer in the state's public intoxication law is going to make much of a difference for his office or police.

The wording of the law was changed July 1 so it is no longer an offense just be in a public place in a state of intoxication, according to a brief on the topic provided by Gensel's office.

The law now requires that to be charged, the subject must be endangering their life or the lives of others, breaching the peace or be in an imminent danger of breaching the peace, or harassing, annoying or alarming another person.

"To a certain extent, it codified what has been exercised by officer's discretion already," Gensel said.

Yet his office has dismissed at least one public intoxication charge as a result of the amended law, which applies to cases already pending at the time it took effect.

A charge was dropped in August against a Nappanee, Ind., man, who was arrested Nov. 27, 2011, after being found drunk in a car parked along U.S. 6 in Liberty Township, said Porter County Deputy Prosecutor Adam Burroughs.

Valparaiso police Sgt. Michael Grennes said officers still have the discretion of determining whether an intoxicated individual poses a risk to themselves or others, which can be more of a concern during the colder months of the year.

This thinking came into play when city police arrested a Lockport, Ill., man shortly before 3 a.m. Jan. 13 after watching him trip and fall three times while crossing the railroad tracks at Axe Avenue with a friend.

"You've got to make a decision what's the best, safest thing to do for this individual," Grennes said.

A 23-year-old Portage man, who had been drinking, froze to death in a car in Hammond in December 1993 after assuring police he was all right and being allowed to continue sleeping.

Hammond police Lt. Richard Hoyda said Friday he believes the law still gives officers the discretion they need to take an intoxicated individual into custody if they are being belligerent or posing a threat to themselves or others.

The department experienced a drop in public intoxication arrests after the law was amended, though Hoyda could not say for sure what led to that outcome. The department made 218 arrests in the second half of 2012, compared with 265 during the same period of 2011.

Other area police departments experienced similar decreases. Porter County police made 43 public intoxication arrests in all of 2011 and 25 in 2012. Lake County police reported 194 arrests in 2011 and 151 in 2012. Valparaiso police made 75 arrests in 2011 and 46 in 2012.

The change in the law came on the heels of a 2008 case from Indianapolis involving a woman, who chose not to drive because she had been drinking alcohol and yet was arrested as a passenger on a public intoxication charge, according to information provided by Gensel.

The Indiana Supreme Court rejected her argument that the arrest "violates the spirit of the public intoxication statute" because "she caused no harm or annoyance and adhered to the popular public service motto 'Don't drink and drive,' " according to a legal description of the case.

Grennes said it has been many years since his department has charged a passenger in a vehicle with public intoxication. The department is more interested in getting drunk drivers off the road, making 139 of those arrests in 2011 and 126 in 2012.

"DUI is more serious," he said.

A public intoxication charge is a Class B misdemeanor that results in pretrial diversion for first-time offenders in Porter County and a dismissal of the charge if the defendant completes the community service work and other obligations ordered by the court, Gensel said.

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