If you happen to frequent bars in downtown Charleston, particularly around King and Market streets, you should acquaint yourself with three charges increasingly being used by city police to control pedestrian traffic: disorderly conduct, drunkenness, and public intoxication.
Unlike a driving under the influence charge, which requires a driver to have a blood alcohol level over a specific limit in order to be found guilty, a police officer doesn't need to administer a breathalyzer to a pedestrian in order validate his or her suspicion that someone may be publicly intoxicated. Based on reports from potential clients I have interviewed, the police have used everything from a conspicuous stumble on the sidewalk to the fact that someone is walking home as justification for stopping them and eventually ticketing them for these offenses.
The Charleston Police Department posts its arrests and citations online, and it also allows users to isolate and track the location of the offenses with a sophisticated mapping system. The increased uptick in the aforementioned charges over this time last year could be the result of more offenders being out on the street and more police officers patrolling where these people are. Alternatively, it could be the result of a concerted effort to crack down on these so-called minor crimes. Chief Greg Mullen has publicly subscribed to the view that by aggressively policing and prosecuting relatively minor infractions, the ripple effect will reduce more serious crimes from proliferating. Whether or not this is true, the result is that more individuals are finding themselves targeted for offenses that in years past might have been ignored.
One potential client of mine told the story of how he began to walk home after determining he had too much to drink. He was not being loud, he was not interacting offensively with any other pedestrians, and according to him, he was not displaying any visible signs of inebriation aside from an unsteady gait. Nonetheless, he was stopped by an officer who asked him where he was going. He was told he needed to take a cab home or else he would be given a ticket for public intoxication. Rather than risk the ticket, he took the cab.
Another client tells the story of tripping on an uneven portion of sidewalk on King Street, whereupon she was questioned by police about how much she had to drink and promptly ticketed for disorderly conduct. She also reported that she had no contact with anyone else who was disruptive or confrontational.
While some might dismiss these anecdotes as aberrations, there is validity to the concern that these "soft crimes" can somehow be enforced at the police officer's discretion, with no objective means of disputing the charge. Most ticketed "offenders" simply pay the fine, assuming that it would be their word against the police officer's — in essence that such charges are irrefutable.
The charge of "disorderly conduct" as defined by the Charleston Municipal Code requires that an offender act willfully and with the purpose of causing danger, alarm, or nuisance to others. While often used as a catch-all charge by police officers to write a citation, proving it in court requires a much higher burden than many officers are prepared to meet. Similarly, public intoxication requires more than proving someone was stumbling around while cited. After all, it is not a crime to trip on a sidewalk or to decide to walk home as opposed to driving.
The aggressive enforcement and prosecution of these charges fit into the City of Charleston's narrative that downtown King and Market are wild areas that need to be cleaned up. Still, harmless bar patrons should not be the collateral damage in the police department's pursuit of these statistics. Any individual who feels they were unfairly cited with these offenses should not hesitate to defend themselves in court rather than assume they will be found guilty.
Dwayne Green is an attorney for HamptonGreen LLC.