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March 1, 2012

Public intoxication law sees changes

Legislation awaiting governor’s signature

INDIANAPOLIS — For decades in Indiana, if you were drunk while walking down the street or riding as a passenger in a car, you could be arrested for public intoxication.

That will soon change, if Gov. Mitch Daniels signs Senate Bill 97 into law.

Legislation passed by the Indiana General Assembly this week requires a person to be disruptive or dangerous, as well as drunk, before they could be arrested and charged with public intoxication.

The bill was sponsored by lawmakers in response to a 2011 Indiana Supreme Court decision. The case involved an Indianapolis woman who was charged with public intoxication after she handed her keys over to a sober “designated driver” because she was too drunk to drive her own car.

She was arrested after a police officer pulled over the car she was riding in as a passenger and discovered the sober driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license. The female passenger told the officer she couldn’t drive because she’d been drinking.

The state’s high court upheld her conviction, and in doing so, sparked a small uproar. Critics feared the ruling would undermine admonishments from public safety advocates who urge people not to drink and drive.  

The new public intoxication law would go into effect July 1, if the governor signs it as expected.

Attorneys who’ve had to wrestle with the current law  welcome the change.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Ann Sutton, chief counsel in the Marion County Public Defender’s office. Her staff argued the Indianapolis woman’s case in court. “You want people to do the responsible thing and not drive when they’re drunk.”

Joel Schumm, a professor at Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis, said the court made its ruling because of the way the current law is written and interpreted. It makes it a crime to be in a public place, in a state of intoxication caused by the use of alcohol or drugs.

As Sutton noted, “that could be a crowd of [Indianapolis] Colts’ fans after a game.”

A 1966 court decision widened the definition of “public place” to include the inside of a vehicle along a public road.

That 1966 ruling allowed prosecutors to charge drunk passengers with public intoxication “even if they were passed out, sitting there quietly, or otherwise doing nothing to harm anyone else, property, or public order,” Schumm said. “I think the bill is a big step in the right direction.”

Schumm said the new law brings Indiana more in line with 45 other states that require more for a public intoxication conviction than simply having downed a few drinks and being in a public place.

The new law requires an additional element for a conviction: An intoxicated person must also be

endangering his or her own life, someone else’s life, or is disturbing the peace, creating a disturbance or harassing another person.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Mike Young, an Indianapolis Republican, said that under the existing law, innocent Hoosiers were being charged with crimes that were unfair when they were caught walking home or riding in a car, rather than driving after they had too much to drink.

The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council initially opposed the bill, concerned it takes away police officers’ discretion in arresting someone who may be potentially dangerous or disruptive.  

State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a Republican from Avon who co-sponsored the bill in the House, said the bill was amended to give police officers immunity from any liability if they don’t arrest an intoxicated person who later commits a crime.

“I think it gives police more discretion,” Steuerwald said. “They no longer have to feel like it’s their duty to arrest someone. And it cures the problem of someone who’s trying to do the right thing.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at

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