Court overturns Scottsdale public intoxication law

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX (AP) -- Scottsdale can't prosecute people for being incapacitated in public because they're under the influence of alcohol, a state appellate court said Tuesday in the latest setback for Arizona communities trying to cope with public intoxication.

A three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Scottsdale's law is pre-empted by a 1972 state law prohibiting local governments from imposing penalties for being intoxicated in public.

Scottsdale enacted the ordinance to help curb rowdy behavior in the Phoenix suburb's downtown entertainment district where there are numerous bars and clubs.

Kenneth Flint, a lawyer for the city prosecutor's office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling, including whether it would be appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Elsewhere in the state, officials from several northern Arizona communities bordering the Navajo Nation in the past decade have unsuccessfully sought legislative action to allow them to temporarily lock up inebriated people at risk of harm from freezing temperatures and other hazards.

The sale and consumption of alcohol on the Navajo Nation, a massive expanse of land that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is banned in all but a couple of places.

"I think it's a double edged sword because if you have people who are falling down stairs and hurting themselves," said Ryan Flores who works at a night club in Old Town. "I don't think it's a huge problem, but it definitely happens.

Scottsdale Police tell 3TV 600 citations were issued for public intoxication over the last 12 months.

"Sometimes cops are overstepping their boundaries out here and taking advantage because they may not like the person," said Chris Deneweth.

A spokesman for Scottsdale Police says the department's officers are professionals who strive to do a difficult job in the most professional manner possible.

This particular public intoxication ordinance has been fought and challenged in the courts for several years.

In the Scottsdale case, the Court of Appeals ruling cited the Legislature's decision in 1972 to decriminalize public intoxication and to treat alcoholism as a disease. The 1972 law changes didn't affect prohibitions against drunken driving or similar offenses.

A Scottsdale municipal judge had ruled in 2012 that a man arrested in 2011 couldn't be prosecuted under the city's ordinance, but city prosecutors appealed.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge then ruled in early 2013 that local laws against intoxication aren't barred when the offense includes being under the influence of alcohol.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that Scottsdale law conflicts with state law and is pre-empted.

"What this means is that Tempe can't have a public intoxication ordinance; Phoenix can't have a public intoxication ordinance; no municipality can charge people with a crime for merely being intoxicated in public," said Criminal Defense Attorney Russ Richelsoph. "Now, it doesn't mean you can go get drunk and disturb the peace."

Statement from Scottsdale City Attorney Bruce Washburn:
"We are implementing compliance with the decision immediately. We are also reviewing the decision to consider whether any further actions on our part would be appropriate."

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