Media fails Law 201, PR Spin 101

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DC’s public intoxication statute doesn’t set hard blood alcohol content (BAC) numbers the way driving under the influence laws do – in fact DC ST § 24-601* opens with a statement that the law is about minimizing harm.

In order to accomplish this purpose and alleviate intoxication  and chronic alcoholism, all public officials in the District of Columbia shall take cognizance of the fact that public intoxication  shall be handled as a public health problem rather than as a criminal offense, and that a chronic alcoholic is a sick person who needs, is entitled to, and shall be provided appropriate medical, psychiatric, institutional, advisory, and rehabilitative treatment services of the highest caliber for his illness.

This matters because we’re seeing a video blaze around the Internet today of a police encounter with a man in a motorized wheelchair-type device (often called by a trade name, Rascal). I’d be somewhat surprised if you haven’t seen it already, but it’s at the top of this article. We’re also seeing some poorly chosen words in describing the incident.

I don’t mean talking about the use of force. The question of how this really played out is now certain to become a subject of interest and we can be sure that review boards will be involved. I’d contend that’s how it should be in any case where the amount of violence used by law enforcement seems at all excessive.

The problem I’m talking about is that we’re seeing a description of how inebriated the man was by talking about “the legal limit.” but there’s the thing: In a case like this there is no legal limit.

Photo courtesy of
‘alcohol and drug free work place’
courtesy of ‘ekelly80′

I’ll  leave it to you to decide whether the video portrays the “cognizance” that this is a “sick person” and whether this represents the “highest caliber” of care possible. I bet you can glean my position. But what you’ll note from the quote above – and from the entire statute if you care to look at it* – is that there’s no magic number where you’re above it and breaking the law and below it and perfectly okay. “Public intoxication,” like art and pornography, are largely in the eye of the beholder.

The same goes for the other governing law: § 25-1001. Drinking of alcoholic beverage in public place prohibited; intoxication prohibited.* There’s nothing in here about hard numbers. It’s down to behavior.

Well, behavior and danger. I suspect this is why we’re seeing Metro use this judgmental language and try to get it into the media: because when you look at the last section of 25-1001, you find something that’s going to be very important as this case shakes out.

(c) No person, whether in or on public or private property, shall be intoxicated and endanger the safety of himself, herself, or any other person or property.

(d) Any person violating the provisions of subsection (a) or (c) of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, or imprisoned for not more than 90 days, or both.

(e) Any person in the District who is intoxicated in public and who is not conducting himself or herself in such manner as to endanger the safety of himself, herself, or of any other person or of property shall be treated in accordance with Chapter 6 of Title 24.

The point being that, unless you’re endangering yourself or others, being drunk in public isn’t a criminal offense. You have to be intoxicated AND “endangering the safety” of someone. Everyone else is supposed to be treated like someone suffering from a disorder and given a chance to get their act together.

The man in this video is committing a crime by drinking that beverage, but whether he’s stone-cold sober or circulating pure ethanol in his veins has no bearing on 25-1001(a). He’s certainly not over some “legal limit” unless they’ve decided they’re going to charge him with operating that motorized wheelchair while inebriated.

Talking about the man’s BAC can be a marginally useful thing if you want to talk about just how drunk the man is, though I’d contend it’s still pretty pointless. We all know folks who turn into raging loudmouths when they drink and we know ones who get weepy. It’s not a good indicator of how they’re going to behave.

So what we’re left with when we talk about the “legal limit” is, unfortunately, is a great example of loaded language that implies a crime that isn’t there. There may be a crime that inspired this encounter – that’s for the court to decide – but it isn’t based on a BAC. Uncritically repeating this number is somewhere between lazy and deceptive.

UPDATE 4:51p: Twitter reader eliotpayne points out to us that § 50-2201.05. Fleeing from scene of accident; driving under the influence of liquor or drugs only says ‘vehicle’ and that a past case, Everton v. D.C. establishes that bikes qualify for this charge. So the arrested individual could have been – or could still be – charged with this violation which certainly would involve a BAC.

I didn’t link any specific article here, partly in an effort not to pick on anyone in particular and partly to make a larger point about what I feel is a common error when public intoxication is reported. As it turns out that might not have mattered – the start of my ire was this WTOP article which has since been edited (without indication that it was edited other than a timestamp of 3:12p, long after I originally read it – tsk tsk) to remove the mention of “legal limit” which it previously contained.

That mention comes above paragraph 9 which states “He was arrested for assault on a police officer and drinking in public,” which WLDC alumni Dave Stroup says matches what the DC Courts documents indicate he was charged with.

It’s the use of “legal limit” while talking about those charges – which have nothing to do with any BAC – that I take issue with and would like to see the media avoid. Talking about the individual’s BAC here is no more relevant than if he’d been charged with littering or violating a noise ordinance. It might have been why he did it or might not, but since it doesn’t make him more or less guilty it just muddies the water at best. At worst it’s an effort at institutional damage control that the media is uncritically helping with.

* Sadly, the District contracts with Westlaw to provide access to the DC Code and their system doesn’t provide any support for linking straight to statute. The best I can do is provide you a link to title 25 and tell you to click on chapter 10 and a link to title 24 and tell you to click on chapter 6.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.

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2 thoughts on “Media fails Law 201, PR Spin 101

  1. Shouldn’t this also include relevant cases to the interpretation of what it means to “endanger the safety…” etc.? This is a legal document and not exactly a simple document that relies on common-sense and dictionary definitions. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, I guess.

  2. I didn’t want to get too far into the weeds of the exact charges. I haven’t seen the charging documents, if nothing else.

    My focus was primarily on this constant use of “legal limit” and the level at which a person is guilty of DUI. Since the reason they were interacting with him was open container and public intoxication, not DUI, the whole question of his BAC is irrelevant.

    I think it’s a pretty bald-faced effort to steer the narrative and I don’t think those of us who write for public consumption should just parrot these things without considering whether they have meaning. NBC managed to report on his BAC with no judgment words. We should all aspire to that.