Every once in a while a dose of sanity prevails among those within the Indiana legislature in reference to enactments and/or modifications made to criminal statutes. One especially troublesome law that remained unaltered for too many years involved the application of public intoxication laws.
Unlike evidentiary elements necessary within dui prosecutions, many people are usually unaware that for a public intoxication prosecution no more than the word of the apprehending police officer could suffice to establish a lawful finding of intoxication. Neither certified breath or blood draw results nor field sobriety testing of accused impaired individuals is required.
Former law in regard to proving the offense of “Public Intoxication” enabled law enforcement officials to arrest one for merely being in a public place in a state of intoxication. Such an open ended standard in combination with an arresting officer’s unrestrained ability to have his or her mere opinion of intoxication validated within courts of law has made the potential for injustice in the enforcement of these laws a frequent reality.
Challenging the notion of intoxication based upon the sworn testimony of a police officer versus one accused of being intoxicated has often proved most difficult. Unless an officer’s credibility is so severely impugned, his or her sworn statement of events usually revolving around odor of alcohol and impaired mannerisms within a court of law will almost universally carry the day.
Public policy considerations suffer when subjective considerations are the exclusive barometer to assess guilt in the applications of criminal laws. In the case of Indiana prosecutions, one nagging concern I have always had revolved in the way in which law enforcement was able to “game” these laws so as to ensnare individuals attempting to handle themself in a responsible fashion when drinking.
For example, under former public intoxication laws people who chose to obtain designated drivers to take them to their ultimate destinations could find themselves arrested for public intoxication merely for being within a passenger seat of a vehicle.
Of course more par for the course were the standard blanket arrests of those designated to be intoxicated found anywhere within the vehicles of people stopped for drunk driving; no matter whether such individuals were asleep or siiting harmelssly within the backseat.
Such laws often served as a catch all to encourage roadway law enforcement to stop vehicles in search of a crime and ask questions later. This had never been more true in application when assessed within the context of dui stops. No matter the objective evidence at the scene of a stop let’s run the driver through field sobriety and breath testing, a police policy may deduce; should the driver be below the legal limit we still got em for public intox. Thankfully, recent appellate court decisions have become more inclined to at least restrain subjective activity in the area of lack of probable cause involving Indiana dui arrests.
Although the new law went into effect July of 2012, I have seen some positive effects in application to submit that the modification of law has been a small step in the right direction. Unlike the unbridled ability for police and prosecutors to leverage convictions based upon the most questionable of evidence, the term “breach of peace” condition has now been inserted within the public intoxication statute.
This insertion is significant for it attempts to address above referenced concerns as to the detention and ultimate arrest of individuals who though impaired, attempt to neither endanger public safety nor prove to act as an active nuisance to the peacability of those around them.
Still troublesome is the remaining allowance for public intoxication convictions resting wholly on subjective testimony of an arresting law enforcement official. No more than such an officer’s reasonable suspicion to conclude that one arrested either endangered others or those around them or breached the peace in any way will suffice to withstand defense challenge.
The definition of breaching the peace to one beat cop may be something completely different to another’s sensibilities. What may be customary or overlooked conduct around a club or sporting event in one community may still be cause for arrest under public intoxication laws within another.
As can be debated, although in the view of many Indiana criminal lawyers this law still has significant room for improvement, it is positive at least in so far as addressing catch all “PI” prosecutions targeted at those seeking the aid of designated drivers or those merely in the presence of those in vehicles stopped for drunk driving.