Late one night in June 2013, the police department in Waterloo, Iowa, received a 911 call from Patience Pye, who reported that she had been a victim of domestic violence. Upon arriving at Pye's house and conferring with her boyfriend, Kendrall Murray, two officers concluded that Pye had been the aggressor in the altercation. Murray reported that she had become enraged and punched him the eye when he refused to give her the car keys because she was drunk (and in any case did not have a driver's license). He claimed Pye often became belligerent when she was drinking. The cops arrested Pye—not for assault but for public intoxication, even though she ventured no further than the front steps of her own house.
There was no question that Pye was intoxicated. Two separate breath tests indicated that her blood alcohol concentration was above 0.26 percent, more than three times the level deemed too drunk to drive. But was she in public? On Friday the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that she was not. "Paye cannot be guilty of public intoxication because she was not intoxicated in a public place," writes Justice Daryl Hecht in the unanimous opinion. To conclude otherwise, he observes, would lead to "absurd results."
Hecht notes that "Iowa is one of few states to criminalize the mere fact of intoxication." The relevant statute makes it a misdemeanor to "use or consume alcoholic liquor in any public place except premises covered by a liquor control license." Iowa defines a "public place" as "any place, building, or conveyance to which the public has or is permitted access." In 1991 the court ruled that a passenger in a car could not be charged with public intoxication, because the general public does not have access to a private vehicle, even one located on a public road. But 12 years later, the court concluded that the front steps and common areas of an apartment house counted as public places, reasoning that tenants should not have to put up with the drunken antics of their neighbors in parts of the building open to all residents.
In Pye's case, the court decided that single-family homes are more like cars than apartment buildings. It rejected the government's argument that the implied permission for salesmen, postal carriers, petition circulators, and charity collectors to approach and knock was enough to render Pye's porch a public place (although it allowed that a general invitation, such as advertising for a yard sale or an open house, might make the ban on public intoxication applicable). "If the front stairs of a single-family residence are always a public place," Justice Hecht notes, "it would be a crime to sit there calmly on a breezy summer day and sip a mojito, celebrate a professional achievement with a mixed drink of choice, or even baste meat on the grill with a bourbon-infused barbeque sauce—unless one first obtained a liquor license. We do not think the legislature intended Iowa law to be so heavy-handed."
Hecht adds that reading the statute so broadly would penalize people for acting responsibly. "Holding the front steps of a single-family home are always a public place," he writes, "would mean any intoxicated person who responsibly secures a ride home from a sober designated driver could be arrested for and convicted of public intoxication because they traversed the stairs of their single-family house while intoxicated."
Aside from the definition of a public place, of course, you might wonder why mere intoxication should ever be illegal. As Hecht notes, "public intoxication statutes are not the only means of establishing consequences for unruly behavior by intoxicated persons," since "the legislature has enacted many other statutes that may apply to actions taken by rowdy and intoxicated individuals," such as laws against harassment and disturbing the peace. If someone is buzzed but not bothering anyone, why bother him?
[Thanks to Mark Lambert for the tip.]