Appeals Court: Chronic Inebriate Program Unconstitutional

San Francisco, CA — San Francisco’s new chronic inebriate court misuses the civil contempt process to keep people jailed without trial, a practice that must be abandoned, the California Court of Appeal ruled Thursday.

“The Court of Appeal charted a clear path for San Francisco: We must provide effective substance abuse treatment that does not come at the expense of the constitutional rights of our citizens,” said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who filed the challenge with the 1st District Court of Appeal on Sept. 28, 2012.

Mayor Edwin Lee’s 4-month-old program, also called the chronic offender court, attempted to force homeless drinkers into jail-based treatment by charging them with civil contempt of court for failing to appear on multiple infractions issued by police. Citizens could be jailed up to 150 days without a trial. No assessment was done as to whether the person was a chronic inebriate, or was already in treatment. There was no requirement that the person be intoxicated at the time of arrest. Of the nine men charged by the court, at least three were sober and already undergoing alcohol treatment.

The practice is unconstitutional, the public defender’s office argued in its challenge.

“The U.S. Constitution provides that a person accused of a crime is entitled to a jury trial. The chronic inebriate court attempted to do an end run around this right by holding people in civil contempt instead of filing criminal charges, such as drunk in public or disorderly conduct,” Adachi said.

The public defender challenged the law on behalf of Warren Morris, a San Francisco man who failed to appear on 22 citations issued between June 28, 2010 and June 30, 2012 and was subsequently charged with contempt of court.  Morris pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 110 days with six months suspended on the condition he participate in the chronic inebriate program.

In its decision, the Court of Appeal concluded that violating a promise to appear on a written citation cannot be the basis for a judgment of contempt of court, and a judge has no authority to jail a person for refusing to respond to what amounts to a traffic ticket.

“The notices to appear (Morris) signed are not equivalent to a judicial proceeding or process,” the justices wrote. The Court of Appeal also concluded that the Superior Court had no authority to hold Morris in custody for three weeks.

The court ordered the contempt case against Morris annulled.

Adachi noted that his office has been on the forefront of fighting for quality treatment, leading the charge in implementing the city’s Drug Court, Behavioral Health Court and Domestic Violence Court.

“I am in favor of getting people into treatment, but we must do it in a way that doesn’t trample their constitutional rights,” Adachi said. “It is fundamentally wrong to jail people without a trial.”

Other U.S. cities offer treatment programs for street alcoholics that do not interfere with due process. In San Diego’s Serial Inebriate Program, for example, a person taken into custody is charged with a misdemeanor and therefore has a right to a jury trial.

The full text of the decision can be seen at http://bit.ly/VIApH5.