This is part one in a series on public intoxication. Part two will appear in Monday’s paper.
FAIRMONT — Police forces in West Virginia no longer can let publicly intoxicated individuals sleep it off in the county jail, so police chiefs around the county say they are struggling to find solutions to this growing problem.
While some municipalities have a higher concentration of public intoxications (PIs) than others, the growing concern has led officials to begin a new series of talks to find a solution for everyone involved.
Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said public intoxication is a major issue in Morgantown, one he has been working to combat for a long time.
“That’s been an issue for a number of years. I mean, a number of years,” he said.
“The state code has some requirements that say we have to take someone and turn them over to a sober, responsible person or we have to take them to a medical provider. So, a lot of ours, just for public intoxication, we have to take to the hospital, where they are kept until they are safe to release from a physiological standpoint.”
Preston said getting ahold of a sober individual to take care of the PI or getting them into hospital care can take a lot of time for his officers. Preston dedicates two officers to work the downtown area.
“They identify a lot of the most at-risk or the most repetitive individuals, and we have done things from involuntary commitments because they are unable to take care of themselves. We’ve done things like taking them to HealthRight, ambulances. It’s a whole myriad of things we have to respond to because we can’t arrest them because we are prohibited from arresting them, so we have to find what solution we have available to us.”
The solutions, as Preston and other officials noted, are limited for law enforcement.
Star City Police Chief Thomas Varndell said he doesn’t come across PIs very often, but when his officers do, they have limited resources available.
“Public intox alone is not a jailable offense, so the only option you have is the citation as far as the public intox side of it goes, but if they are being disorderly, you are able to take them to jail,” he said. “If their intoxication is to the point where they are not making sound, rational decisions, or they are involuntarily vomiting, things of that nature, then we will call EMS and have them taken to the hospital to have them evaluated for their own safety…”
If they do decide to arrest someone, if that person is very intoxicated on drugs, the regional jail won’t accept them, he said. That means an officer must drive the person to the hospital and wait for medical clearance, which takes several hours, he added.
Preston said West Virginia state code 60-6-9f and the West Virginia Constitution Article 3, para. 5 consider alcoholism a disease and consider punishing such individuals for PIs “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“Do you know it’s against the law for me to arrest someone for an alcohol-related offense, such as public consumption or public intoxication, if they have been arrested three times in the past for such an offense?” he said.
“So, then you add that to panhandling. Loitering, begging, etc. Loitering is a protected activity under the First Amendment. People have the freedom of assembly. It’s not against the law to loiter and hang out.”
Begging isn’t against the law either, he said because it’s freedom of speech, he said.
“The courts look at there is no difference between someone soliciting money for the red kettle, for ringing the bell verses someone asking for money for themselves. There’s no difference in the way the courts look at that.”
Westover Police Chief Richard Panico said he deals with PIs, mostly repeat offenders, but often feels his options are limited, especially if the individuals can’t afford citations.
“That’s where the Bartlett House used to come in, and in the old county jail, there was a six-hour drunk tank,” he said. “It was just popping them up there, and they’d sober up in six hours, and if they sobered up enough, you’d cut them loose and they’d have a citation on them. That was pretty simple.”
“The other side of this is the socioeconomic problem of these (individuals) not having the money to pay the citation. If they don’t pay the fine, they aren’t going to go to jail. You keep putting them on more citations, and they aren’t going to show up for court, so you get a warrant for their arrest. You take them to jail, and the jail doesn’t want them. They are chronic alcoholics. We aren’t designed for this.”
Panico said the problem is only growing, and he said there needs to be a long-term solution to the problem.
“Our answer is we evict them in Westover because they won’t live in Westover. That’s an answer, not a solution. I’m looking for the overall quality of life for the people of Westover, as opposed to the drunk man.”
Currently, the most common term short-solution provided by Westover, Star City, Granville, Morgantown and WVU police is to find a sober friend or family member to take them home.
WVU Police Chief William “W.P” Chedester said the university is cautious about its take on PIs.
“We do. We go above and beyond to find someone to take them, someone who is sober. We make sure they don’t need any kind of medical attention. We release them to someone who can take them home and take care of them until they are sober,” Chedester said.
Preston said this approach works for individuals who have known family or friends in the area, but in many cases, the situation is not clear-cut.
“It’s like, they are drunk,” he said. “Do something about it. I can’t. I’m not allowed to. Because if I arrest them, now I have violated their constitutional rights, whether it be cruel and unusual punishment or etc., and now the municipality or the officers individually are on the hook.”
“I could call an ambulance for them, but if the hospital won’t take them and says they are not sufficiently a danger to themselves, there is nothing left for us to do. We’ve run out of tools.”