Sobriety center would be a smart step toward decriminalizing public intoxication in Austin

David Davis, Jr.

On March 11, the Travis County commissioners approved a resolution encouraging county staffers to develop a so-called “sobriety center,” a facility where police would send drunk people instead of arresting them for public intoxication. 

This method is already used in other large Texas municipalities, such as Houston and San Antonio. County staffers are expected to report back on the feasibility of the proposition by Sept. 1, and Austinites should hope they report positively. Constructing a sobriety center would be a progressive means to handle a nonviolent offense, since those who are found to be intoxicated in a public place would not have to face arrest and a criminal record. 

The move would be particularly smart for the city of Austin, which is renowned for its party district, especially Sixth Street. Sixth Street sees vast numbers of drinkers from Thursday night until the wee hours of Sunday morning. It makes no sense that, in this city, people can be punished for indulging in such a highly promoted activity — assuming, of course, that they aren’t engaging in any violent activity. 

There is, of course, the problem of violent activity committed by persons who are intoxicated in public. For unknown reasons, officers are believed to have an unmatched ability to foresee a person’s violent behavior. 

But Defense Attorney Mindy Montford said the most common reason that police officers arrest people for public intoxication is because they see them step off a curb, which means, according to arresting officers, that the person could later step into oncoming traffic. So, in reality, if you’re drunk and jaywalking an officer is more likely to make an arrest. I suppose that officers believe the best way to protect people and save them from themselves is to arrest them.

Current Travis County law allows the police to use their discretion in order to determine whether a person’s drunkenness could potentially be dangerous to others. If a person is arrested as a result of the current law, which allows absolute subjectivity among officers, the individual would be booked into the county jail and charged with a Class C misdemeanor — an offense for which officers do not usually arrest people. 

Montford said that public intoxication charges typically carry a maximum penalty of a fine, similar to the punishment received for a ticketable offense, such as speeding.

Although individuals should be held responsible for their own behavior, if lawmakers believe excessive consumption of alcohol to be a societal evil, there are already measures on the books that can be better enforced. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines prohibit bartenders or servers from over-serving customers, and selling alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated is punishable by a fine up to $1,000 or one year in jail. Clearly, if public intoxication is a real problem, the government should step in and enforce the regulations impacting the bars, not just those impacting persons stumbling around downtown. 

If the goal of the criminal justice system is to punish individuals for a crime so that they do not commit the crime again, criminalizing public intoxication fails to meet this goal. Whether the problem is substance abuse or simply a night out to celebrate a 21st birthday, arresting people who for being publicly intoxicated does not solve any issue. Travis County is taking a step in the right direction by moving toward decriminalization of public intoxication. 

Davis is an international relations and French junior from Houston.