Public Intoxication, Without the Intoxication

Adam Weinstein pens an article for Mother Jones that looks at the ridiculously vague and ripe for abuse public intoxication laws in Texas. Apparently, the laws are so vague that people can be arrested while still drinking in bars, and even if they’re not misbehaving at all. Incidents have cropped up in which police officers have targeted minorities for arrest using the vague laws.

Arrested for drinking in a bar? Sounds like the ultimate catch-22. Since 2006, when Texas overtook California as the state with the most drunk-driving fatalities, cops and a beefed-up task force from the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission have used a 1993 law as a pretext to enter any bar and arrest its patrons on the spot. The public intoxication standard, backed by the Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is so broad that you can be arrested on just a police officer’s hunch, without being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. State courts have not only upheld the practice but expanded the definition of public intoxication to cover pretty much any situation, says Robert Guest, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. “Having no standard allows the police to arrest whoever pisses them off and call it PI,” he says, adding, “If you have a violent, homophobic, or just an asshole of a cop and you give him the arbitrary power to arrest anyone for PI, you can expect violent, homophobic, and asshole-ic behavior.”

For some officers, PI has provided a ready-made reason for detaining minorities. A Houston defense attorney, who asks to be unnamed since he specializes in misdemeanors such as PI, puts it this way: “If you’re brown and you’re around—you’re going down.” Nick Novello, a 27-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, blew the whistle on three colleagues who he claims filled their arrest quotas by picking up people, mostly minorities, for PI. “They were illegally arrested,” Novello says. “It’s an absolute perversion.” (Two were removed from the force.)

According to a recent report by sociology and law professors at the University of California-Berkeley, the Dallas suburb of Irving has used “discretionary” public intoxication arrests to fish for undocumented immigrants.

Hat Tip to Radley Balko at Reason Magazine.

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  1. #1 by Jeremy Westenn on Sat 27 Feb 2010 - 19:48

    This is a serious, serious issue. Furthermore, it’s police brutality and police intimidation. Why license establishments to server liquor if its legal to arrest them for consuming it there?? I mean, where is the sense in that?! If its illegal to consume it then it should probably be illegal to even sell it?

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