Sunday, October 25, 2009

Will Madison, Wisconsin Post the Scarlet A for Alcoholics

The Madison City Council is considering an ordinance that will ban retailers from selling alcohol to chronic alcoholics whose names have been posted on a “do not serve” list, the “Scarlet Letter A” List. The list will be the equivalent of the Vegas list of cheaters who are banned from the casinos. The list would obviously include photos; else it would be totally ineffective.

The qualifications for the list are simple: be arrested and convicted of a crime while drunk or taken to treatment, a combination six times in the preceding 180 days. That’s heavy drinking! In public!

The city estimates 24-48 drunkards would initially be listed, but probably 100-150 could ultimately qualify.

The list would be distributed to retailers; establishments violating the ordinance would be subject to a $500 fine for the first offense.

The outed alcoholics alcoholics would be given notice and a right to appeal, presumably if they sober up.

As a practical matter, someone would almost immediately post the names on the internet, resulting in a universal, eternal cyberspace Scarlet A.

Clearly the costs of alcohol to America in general and Madison in particular are high.

Madison alone estimates these drunkards cost it millions of dollars annually on police, jails, mental health, detoxification, hospital and other services. They commit numerous, often vicious, crimes, and we always have to worry about drunk drivers and vehicular manslaughter. Panhandling drunks downtown present a poor image of the city.

Madison has also been concerned in recent years with its image as a party town. City officials convinced bars near the University of Wisconsin campus to abandon drink specials, 2 for 1 beers, and discounted liquor on Fridays and Saturdays after 8pm.

A Madison ordinance bans dangerous and disorderly persons from State Street.

Opponents of the plan call it an invasion of privacy. Yet, Scarlet Letters are common with public records, such as posting lists of tax deadbeats and scofflaws. Arrests are a matter of public record. Anyone can compile the information, the publication of which is constitutionally protected.

The Los Angeles Times periodically publishes a list of bars and restaurants cited for health code violations. The most common violations are rodents, roaches, and backup sewage, all to the public shame of the establishments.

Another objection is that the list constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. Green Bay has a similar ordinance, but it only calls for voluntary enforcement by the retailers.

A society which allows states to enforce civil confinement orders against sexual predators upon completion of their prison sentences will not wince about ordering stores to deny alcohol to the chronically intoxicated. Bars and restaurants are already required by Dram Shops to cut off the visibly intoxicated.

Madison would have had an easy, inexpensive solution just a few decades ago to the habitual public drunk. Police would periodically sweep the downtown, toss the drunks into a “paddy wagon,” (supposedly named for drunken Irish) and then let the drunks dry out over night. No booking, muss or fuss, and totally unconstitutional.

Another approach in some urban areas was to “transport” these same drunks across city lines and dump them, literally and figuratively, in an adjoining community. For example, officers in Westchester County might dump their drunks in Da Bronx, and the NYPD officers often returning the favor.

These options are no longer viable. Once the officers apprehend a drunk, they must book him and process him through the criminal justice system.

The proposed ordinance does not attack the root causes of alcoholism, but simply some extreme manifestations.

Indeed, upon close inspection, it is not even intended as a broad attack upon alcoholism, but is directed at public drunks, historically the drunken bums who hung out on Skid Row.

The proposed ordinance does not apply to bars and restaurants. In other words, all the alcoholic has to do is go into one of these establishments, sit on a stool, be served, get sloshed, fall off, and grab a cab home. Or be in a fraternity or sorority!

Perhaps the commercial establishments are so busy and crowded that enforcement of the Scarlet Letter list would be unfeasible, but significantly more drinking occurs in these venues than from the retail outlets.

If so, the real offense is public intoxication by the traditional bums.

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