Travis County officials work to open sobriety center

Julia Brouillette

Under current state law, police officers have three options once they arrest someone for public intoxication: They can release the person to a sober friend, transport him to the hospital or put him in jail.

A group of law enforcement, criminal justice and medical officials are working toward a fourth option — a sobriety center, also known as a “drunk tank,” which would allow intoxicated individuals to become sober and eventually be released without facing criminal charges.

On March 11, Travis County commissioners unanimously passed a resolution encouraging county staffers to work with the City of Austin and Seton Healthcare Family hospitals to develop a plan for a sobriety center. Austin City Council approved a similar resolution on March 20. The county staffers are expected to report back by Sept. 1. 

Public intoxication is generally a Class C misdemeanor in Texas, which does not carry a jail sentence. Yet many offenders are incarcerated, according to Travis County judge Nancy Hohengarten.

“In order to be arrested in the first place, you have to be a danger to yourself or others,” Hohengarten said. “It really doesn’t make sense to take someone to jail, but if there’s no place to take you, you may end up getting hurt yourself or hurting someone else.”

Hohengarten, who handles a number of Class C misdemeanor cases in her court, said UT students in particular would benefit from this type of facility.

“[Students] wouldn’t get arrested, they wouldn’t have to deal with a criminal record, they wouldn’t have to pay for an attorney and they wouldn’t even have to tell their parents,” Hohengarten said.

Public intoxication cases put a burden on court system officials and police officers, who typically spend several hours booking a suspect into jail, Hohengarten said. In 2013, APD arrested 3,700 people for public intoxication. In that same year, UTPD arrested 169 people for public intoxication, with the offense accounting for roughly 12 percent of the year’s reports.

Sobriety centers have opened in San Antonio and Houston, which helped warm up Austin officials to the idea, according to Hohengarten.

“When other communities do it and there’s some positive impact, then it makes it easier for other communities to coalesce and look at those experiences,” Hohengarten said.

The facility would be available to any law enforcement agency in Travis County, including campus police. UTPD Chief David Carter said he fully supports the opening of a sobriety center, as long as it exclusively serves individuals who could be a danger to themselves or others and not those who commit other offenses after drinking.

“This, in my opinion, does not apply to people involved in other offenses where they’re assaulting people or threatening people. That’s a whole different story,” Carter said.

According to Carter, UTPD officers will release a publicly intoxicated person to a sober adult, if possible.

“We strive to not put people in jail for public intoxication,” Carter said. “Sometimes we can’t avoid that because there’s no place for the person to go, but we’d rather release a person to somebody who can watch out and make sure that they’re safe.”

Offenders are often transported to the emergency room in lieu of jail, according to Christopher Ziebell, emergency department director of University Medical Center Brackenridge.

“If something happens to that individual while in jail, the county faces liability,” Ziebell said. “Therefore, the nurses at the jail will often reject individuals [whom] they feel are too intoxicated to be safe at jail. So, often another path is chosen, which is to send the patient to the hospital.”

This results in decreased space and diminished mental energy in the emergency department, Ziebell said.

“These individuals try to get up a lot, they need frequent redirection, they occasionally need restraint [and] they urinate on themselves or on the floor,” Ziebell said. “All of these behaviors are distracting to the staff, who have to divert their attention away from trauma, strokes, heart attacks and so on.”