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City Council should see the good in Tuesday’s bar ruling

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 16, 2009 7:30 AM

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While city councilors are undoubtedly upset by the state’s rejection Tuesday of their PAULA-ratio policy, they shouldn’t fret. Instead, they should use the ruling as an opportunity to shift to policies that target alcoholic overconsumption.

On Tuesday, Administrative Law Judge Margaret LeMarche overturned the city’s decision to deny liquor-license renewals to 3rd Base and Et Cetera, ruling that both bars’ owners have the “good moral character” required. To prove otherwise, “the local authority must present more than raw numbers of PAULA citations,” LeMarche wrote in both rulings.

We’ve previously written that the police should focus on unruly patrons and overconsumption rather than merely busting underage drinkers. And we’ve urged the city to scrap its misguided licensing policy. Tuesday’s ruling gives the councilors that chance.

Still, more specific questions remain: Namely, what should the blood-alcohol level be under this public intoxication-centered policy we’ve proposed?

The state doesn’t have a threshold for public intoxication, but Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said the police follow the 0.08 limit — identical to the one used for OWIs. The Iowa City police should instead enforce a 0.15 limit, thereby making it clearer who are dangerous to themselves or others.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a 0.15 blood-alcohol concentration can cause mood swings, mania, and anger. The 0.08 concentration is more commonly associated with numbness, nausea, and sleepiness, according to the institutes.

Kelsay told the Editorial Board that the public-intoxication charge offers a solution to preventing further problems, such as fighting or out-of-control behavior.

“That charge is relied on heavily because it is an efficient way to deal with other issues,” he said.

We agree that public-intoxication arrests can hinder downtown violence, but the 0.08 standard allows police officers to arrest otherwise law-abiding individuals. In implementing an overconsumption-based policy such as the one we’ve previously outlined, it’s paramount police officers don’t just arrest mildly inebriated students. The move away from cracking down on underage drinkers shouldn’t catalyze a concurrent increase in arrests of even-keeled drunks.

Vagueness is an issue, but Kelsay said that it is “less about the [blood-alcohol] level than the associated physical indicators.”

These physical indicators include, but are not limited to: bloodshot eyes, watery eyes, inability to stand, and inability to process simple questions with an appropriate answer.

These tests are similar to the process for drinking and driving, and in Kelsay’s opinion, it’s logical to use the same standard for both tests.

“It makes sense to mirror it to the drunk-driving laws; either you’re intoxicated or not, whether or not you’re driving,” Kelsay said. “Personally, I think raising the level to 0.15 is extremely high.”

Intoxicated people can pose a danger regardless of whether they are driving. But using the same blood-alcohol level implies the offense should be analyzed in a similar manner. Relatively low alcohol levels inhibit one’s driving but have a minimal effect on such basic tasks as, say, ordering a burrito at Panchero’s. The blood level for public-intoxication violations should reflect that difference.

This proposed change should be just one facet of the City Council’s incipient approach to the overconsumption problem. The Editorial Board supports the continued practice of arresting individuals for public intoxication.

In addition, increasing the use of breath tests is an important component to solving the city’s massive drinking and overconsumption problem. However, we firmly believe that the 0.08 blood-alcohol level cannot sufficiently prove someone is overly intoxicated.

Increasing the level by nearly half is a powerful move, and we recognize its significance. Our objective is not to make it tougher for Iowa City police officers to do their job but to make the standard benchmark a clear and accountable indicator of actual drunkenness.

City officials should use Tuesday’s ruling as a clear impetus to devise a smarter alcohol policy.
But they should also do it right.


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