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July 7, 2011

HARBESON: Designate PI law for repeal

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Let’s say you — or someone you care about — had a few drinks one night and, knowing it would not be a good idea to drive, decided to let a sober person take the wheel.

Did you realize you can still be charged with a criminal offense? It’s true. The Indiana Supreme Court just affirmed this in Moore v. State.

Here’s some background on the case. A woman had a couple of beers at a relative’s home. While she was there, another person asked her for a ride. Since she had been drinking, she told him she could not drive so he drove while she rode in the passenger seat and fell asleep.

A police officer pulled them over because a license plate light was out and  then discovered that the driver did not have a valid license. When the officer determined that the passenger was too impaired to drive, he arrested her for public intoxication.

There are several issues and concerns surrounding this ruling, one being the implications with regard to society’s strong push to prevent drunken driving by promoting the idea of designated drivers.

It’s not difficult to see possible problems when someone who is responsible enough to use a designated driver can still be charged with criminal behavior. As a matter of fact, as a result of this ruling, when the good folks at New Albany’s Irish Exit give rides to their patrons who have been drinking, it’s now theoretically possible for a police officer to pull their vans over for a minor offense and arrest their customers.

This ruling clearly illustrates problems with laws such as Indiana’s public intoxication law. It’s a good example of unintended consequences, a peril that all written law is susceptible to and is one reason why the less laws we have, the better.

Indiana’s public intoxication law is horrendously vague and depends upon the arbitrary discretion of law enforcement, which means it is open to possible abuse.

Worst of all, this law makes criminals of peaceful people who are not harming others. Lysander Spooner made an excellent case way back in the 1870s when he said “vices are not crimes.” He writes, “Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.”

When a law exists that can rightly be interpreted to say that one can commit a criminal offense even while sleeping in the passenger seat of a car, clearly we have a problem.

Indiana State Sen. Michael Young agrees that Indiana’s public intoxication law is much too vague and in the most recent legislative session, he authored Senate Bill 156. This bill added language to the law in an attempt to clarify the necessity of additional behaviors above and beyond merely being intoxicated.

It passed in the Senate, with local Sen. Ron Grooms voting for and Sen. Jim Smith voting against. The bill died in the House and Young says he will try again next year.

While it’s good to know some legislators seem to understand that criminal behavior should involve harm to person or property, I highly encourage Young to go further and push for the repeal of Indiana’s public intoxication law.

Adding language to bad laws merely complicates the issue even further and increases the likelihood of even more negative unintended consequences. Surely, Indiana has enough laws on the books for actual criminal behavior that law enforcement can use if necessary.

Other states have no specific laws against public intoxication and some specifically note that an intoxicated person is not committing a crime. To protect innocent individuals who have caused no harm to others, Indiana should do the same and repeal this law.

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson grudgingly admits that selecting a “designated driver” is a better idea than her suggestion of selecting the “designated intoxicated.” Write to her at debbie@debbieharbeson.com

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