Just Being Drunk in Public Shouldn’t be a Crime, Right?


Iowa House File 2023, which I filed, proposes the repeal of the criminal offense of “Intoxication and Simulated Intoxication in Public Places” (which crime was first enacted in 1928). As far as I can determine, Public Intoxication is the only crime in the Iowa Code that criminalizes a mere status – i.e., being drunk in a public place – as opposed to a bad action or behavior. The majority of states – including all of the states surrounding Iowa – do NOT criminalize public intoxication, and those states that do generally require additional proof of some actual illegal behavior. Finally, Iowa is the one and only state in the country that criminalizes “simulated” public intoxication – yes, you can be convicted of a crime for acting like a drunk person, even if you are stone cold sober. Iowa is clearly an outlier in this area, and – in my opinion – not in a good way.

Obviously, drunk people often engage in obnoxiously illegal activity – yelling, fighting, damaging property, interfering with law enforcement, harassment – and when they do, they can (obviously) be arrested and taken to jail based upon existing crimes that target this specific  illegal behavior. Thus, the primary public policy rationale for continuing to classify the mere STATUS of being intoxicated in public as a crime appears to be a (sincere) desire to protect an extremely drunk person who is NOT actually doing anything illegal from possible future injury; a secondary rationale appears to be a desire to prevent the drunk person from possibly engaging in obnoxiously illegal behavior at some hypothetical future point in time. These are understandable goals, but IMO it’s seriously problematic public policy to arrest, jail, prosecute and convict a drunk person “for his own good,” or to keep him from maybe doing something bad in the future –  the ends simply do not justify the means.

In 2015, according to statistics provided by Iowa’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning Division, 10,662 charges were filed, and 9,443 convictions were entered (against about 8,200 defendants, since some of them were charged multiple times or with multiple counts) for the crimes of Intoxication/Simulated Intoxication in a Public Place. Those figures represent a lot of police making a lot of arrests, a lot of citizens spending at least a night in a jail cell, a lot of court appearances and a lot of fines/court costs/attorney fees. I know that our law enforcement agencies, county jails, and courts are underfunded and often understaffed, and thus I wonder if the time, money and other limited resources expended on convicting thousands of people annually for this “crime” could be put to better use elsewhere.
I sincerely respect the various law enforcement agencies that have registered in (strong!) opposition to House File 2023 – their people work in the trenches, under difficult and dangerous conditions, and it is completely understandable that they would prefer not to lose what is no doubt a valuable and time saving tool – i.e., the ability to arrest a drunk person simply for being drunk. But to paraphrase President Ronald Reagan, I believe that the role of our criminal justice system is to protect citizens from other (bad) citizens, and NOT to protect citizens from themselves.

In truth, I find the assertion that it’s in the best interest of either the State of Iowa or of drunk Iowans to arrest and jail and criminalize drunks (who are not doing anything otherwise criminal) FOR THEIR OWN GOOD offensive and alarming … because this is America, people! Right? I mean, come on … we can do better than this!

Anyhow …. while I doubt that House File 2023 will move forward this session, I do appreciate the fact that the bill was, at least, allowed the courtesy of a subcommittee (unlike the rest of the bills I filed this session lol) and I hope that next term my legislative colleagues, local and state law enforcement agencies, and other interested parties can work together on establishing an alternative, NON-CRIMINAL legal mechanism that allows law enforcement officers to provide short term assistance to extremely drunk citizens without long term messing up their lives … I’m sure it’s possible, and I look forward to helping make it happen.

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About Representative Mary Wolfe

Part time attorney; full time State Representative for Iowa House District 98 (East Clinton County)
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One Response to Just Being Drunk in Public Shouldn’t be a Crime, Right?

  1. kevin says:

    You make good points. It is much like other “presumtive” crimes such as simple possession of a weapon in public absent some other threatening or otherwise noxious behavior.

    Perhaps the spirit of the public intoxication law could be satisfactority preserved for supporters by making it an aggravating factor when combined with some other atual offense.

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