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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Bill Allows Cities To Criminalize Public Intoxication

Niki Zupanic Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Montana
Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Montana Niki Zupanic has lobbied in Helena for three sessions, partnering with Democrats and Republicans to promote civil liberties. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk)

Montana lawmakers are moving closer to giving cities the power to deal with the problem of public intoxication.

Current state law treats alcoholism as a disease to be treated rather than a crime to be punished, but Billings city officials say that hampers their efforts to deal with public drunkenness, a problem that costs the city over eight million dollars a year.

Billings city attorney Brent Brooks testified in favor of the bill that would let any Montana city criminalize public drunkenness, allowing police to arrest inebriated people and take them to jail. 

"A person will be impaired, serial inebriate, on the sidewalk, we don’t know what their condition is, and they cannot be charged with open container, trespass or any other criminal offense. So the option is, okay, we’ll just leave them like they are."

American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Niki Zupanic objected, telling the House Judiciary Committee that the bill opens the door for cities to adopt any penalty they wanted.

"We are concerned about the possibility that there could be heavy-handed enforcement of the bill in situations outside of what the city of billings has acknowledged here today."

The bill passed the Senate last month by the comfortable margin. House Judiciary will decide later whether any amendments are needed before the bill goes to the House floor for a vote.

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