The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to give local governments the ability to adopt and enforce a public intoxication law.
Supporters of the bill say the intent of the bill is to get help for people who have frequent contact with law enforcement or other first responders.
Matt Lennick is one of the resource officers for Downtown Billings. He regularly gets calls to deal with intoxicated individuals.
Lennick says law enforcement has little recourse on issues related to public intoxication.
"In a recent case I was called for a female subject numerous times in one day," Lennick testified. "During one incident she was cited for open container violation. The female looked at me, told me there was nothing I could do to here, and ate her citation."
Lennick says within a couple of hours she had consumed so much alcohol that an ambulance transported her to the hospital.
Last fall, the Community Crisis Center found a total of 74 individuals in Billings who’ve been identified as having frequent interaction with law enforcement or first responders at a cost of over $8.5 million a year.
"And we feel like we’re failing in assisting this vulnerable population," says Lisa Harmon, the executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance and, one of the individuals spearheading the effort to address this issue.
Harmon says passage of Senate Bill 360 would give local governments a tool to get help to those who suffer the effects of addiction.
"Jail is not the place for the mentally ill and the addicted. And also a public intoxication ordinance in our city could provide an additional tool for our law enforcement."
Still some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were concerned such an ordinance could lead police to harass people walking home from the bars or the homeless population.
Supporters of the bill say that is not the intent. Rather it’s just one tool. In Billings, the community is pursuing a “sobering center” combined with substance abuse, mental health treatment, or other assistance to address the underlying causes.
State Senator Jennifer Fielder asked Officer Matt Lennick to clarify the role of peace officers in this effort.
"This is an attempt to deal with those individuals that have had so much to drink they cannot care for themselves," Lennick said. "They’re falling down drunk. They’re passed out on the street. We’re seeing it over and over. These people are not getting the care that they need. There’s nothing we can do with them. And quite frankly we’re having some that are flat out dying. They’re being left out on the street and they’re dying in the cold.
Senator Fielder replied, "when I cast my vote for this legislation that’s what I am going to remember and I hope you will as well.
Shortly after the hearing on Senate Bill 360, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure on a 12-to-0 vote.