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March 3, 2012

New law restores justice

Picture this scenario.

A woman who realizes she has had too much to drink finds a friend to drive her home. She hands him the keys to her car, and they head home, just like all those public service announcements recommend.

But there’s a problem. The car gets pulled over by a police officer who finds the driver doesn’t have a valid license.

Faced with a car driven by an unlicensed driver, the officer wants to know who owns the car. The woman tells the officer the car is hers, but she admits she’s too drunk to drive.

She isn’t belligerent. She’s simply drunk.

The officer arrests her for public intoxication. She goes to court, where she is convicted and slapped with a fine.

Seriously?

This actually happened to an Indianapolis woman, and she took the case all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which upheld her conviction last year.

The court ruled that Indiana law required only that a person be drunk in a public place to be charged with public intoxication, and according to a court decision from 1966, the inside of a vehicle traveling along a public road qualifies as a public place.

Lots of folks were appalled by the woman’s conviction and the court’s subsequent ruling.

The woman, they said, was doing exactly what all those public awareness campaigns had encouraged her to do. She was too drunk to drive, so she handed her keys to someone who was sober.

And she wound up getting arrested for public intoxication simply for getting a ride home.

What would the courts have had her do? Spend the night at the bar?

The folks behind those campaigns urging people to find a designated driver were afraid that a case like this might discourage people from following their advice. What good does it do to hand over your car keys if you’re going to end up being arrested anyway?

That’s an oversimplification, of course. Hundreds of people have done the right thing and managed to get home safely and without getting arrested.

Still, supporters of the bill say the woman’s case isn’t exactly unique.

They say that under the existing law, Hoosiers caught walking home or riding in a car with a designated driver are being charged basically for doing the right thing.

This isn’t, of course, the fault of the courts. Judges and prosecutors are simply enforcing the law on the books. So are the police officers making the arrests.

State law makes it a crime to be in a public place in a state of intoxication caused by the use of alcohol or drugs. Under that language, a woman who hands her keys to a friend is still violating the law when she gets into the car.

Such a law puts a person who has had too much to drink in an unreasonable position. You can’t walk home. You can’t get a ride home. You would pretty much have to stay where you are, and that’s not always feasible.

Lawmakers responded appropriately to the decision and set out to fix the flaw in Indiana law.

Senate Bill 97 requires a person not only to be drunk, but to be disruptive or dangerous before he or she can be charged with public intoxication. An intoxicated person must be endangering his or her own life, endangering someone else’s life or disturbing the peace, creating a disturbance or harassing another person.

Assuming the governor signs it, the new law will take effect July 1.

It’s a change that is long overdue.

• Kelly Hawes is managing editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5155 or kelly.hawes@pharostribune.com.

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