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Monday, June 15, 2015

It is Legal to be Intoxicated on the Front Steps of a Private Residence in Iowa

So ruled the Iowa Supreme Court last week, holding that Iowa Code section 123.46(2), which prohibits a person from being "intoxicated in a public place," does not prohibit people from being intoxicated on the front steps or porch of a private residence. The full text of the opinion is here. Coverage of the opinion is available here, here, and here.

The Court held that the front steps of a private residence are not a "public place." The Court noted that if a private residence's porch or residence were to be deemed a public place, people could be punished for a wide range of behavior. From the opinion:

[I]f the front stairs of a single-family residence are always a public place, it would be a crime to sit there calmly on a breezy summer day and sip a mojito, celebrate a professional achievement with a mixed drink of choice, or even baste meat on the grill with a bourbon-infused barbeque sauce—unless one first obtained a liquor license. We do not think the legislature intended Iowa law to be so heavy-handed.

Additionally, holding the front steps of a single-family home are always a public place would mean any intoxicated person who responsibly secures a ride home from a sober designated driver could be arrested for and convicted of public intoxication because they traversed the stairs of their single-family house while intoxicated. Iowans “should not suffer a criminal penalty for taking . . . responsible action.” (citations and footnote omitted)
It is important to note, however, that this ruling is limited to private residences. The Court noted at the outset of its opinion that in State v. Booth 670 N.W.2d 209, 215-16 the Court held that the front steps and hallway of apartment buildings are public places.

One other interesting thing that I learned from this opinion was that Iowa Code section 123.46(3) states:

A person shall not simulate intoxication in a public place. A person violating this subsection is guilty of a simple misdemeanor

I suppose I could see a few situations where this law might make sense. People are prohibited from attempting to fool officers into thinking they are intoxicated in violation of section 123.46(2). Although why anyone would ever want to do that is beyond me. Alternatively, this section may prevent sober friends from attempting to camouflage drunk companions by putting on a performance in which all the members of a group appear intoxicated and, in doing so, confound an officer's investigation (a tactic that I will call the Spartacus defense).

But ultimately, section 123.46(3) appears to be an overly strict prohibition, and I suspect that it may violate the First Amendment. If a storyteller or comedian is pretends to be intoxicated as part of an act or play, for instance, that person may be found guilty of simulating intoxication in a public place. Additionally, the law seems vague, since it is unclear how convincing the simulation of intoxication needs to be.

Perhaps the Supreme Court will address this intriguing subsection of the law on another occasion. Until then, those in Iowa who are sitting on their front porches or steps can raise a glass to the Iowa Supreme Court without fear of legal repercussion.

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