Police withdraw "habitual drunk" blacklist, make cash settlement

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 6 Apr 1999 22:44:53 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  [California, USA] Contra Costa Times - April 6, 1999


     Police had warned liquor stores not to sell
     to those listed as 'habitual drunks'

     By Meredith May - Times Staff Reporter

SAN PABLO -- Eight men singled out by police as "public drunks" are being
let back in liquor stores.

City officials have agreed to settle a messy situation that arose in the
fall when police visited the city's 27 liquor merchants with mug shots of
the men, warning shop owners they could face a misdemeanor if they sold
liquor to any "habitual drunk" on the list.

In a deal expected to be signed this week, the city will rescind the police
blacklist and pay $5,000 to the Gray Panthers, a senior group that helps
the men with rides, food and clothing, said City Attorney Brian Libow.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, which represented
three of the men, sent an intent-to-sue notice to San Pablo police. They
will agree not to file a lawsuit, Libow said.

"We've all agreed to this; now everyone just has to sign it," he said.

The city will pay because the legal world has long since given up the
notion of a habitual drunk.

Libow applauded the creative attempt by police to clear Kennedy Plaza park
of public drinkers -- a decades-old problem for the tiny park overlooking
San Pablo Creek. The park, a short walk from several liquor stores, has
become a de facto watering hole.

Still, Libow said a search of case law revealed that the 1889 state law
prohibiting alcohol sales to habitual drunks is invalid. The state Supreme
Court ruled in 1960 that the term "habitual drunk" was overly vague and
thus unconstitutional.

"This just goes to show poor people can fight city hall and win," said Oren
Sellstrom, an attorney who represented the three men who challenged police.
"They stood up for their right to not be unfairly labeled by government."

The $5,000 settlement will go toward food, medicine, clothes and emergency
shelter for the homeless, said Susan Prather, who coordinates homeless
outreach for the West County Gray Panthers.

Sgt. Mark Foisie said he came up with the sales ban idea in October after
spending the past 17 years trying to persuade park regulars to move into
shelters and sober up. Each of the eight men has logged between 15 and 30
arrests on suspicion of public drunkenness, burglary and aggressive
panhandling, he said.

"We arrested these guys so many times, we believed their drinking was a
detriment to their health," said Police Chief Doug Krathwohl.

The money isn't going to the men because the city insisted that any payouts
go "to a good cause," Libow said. Originally, the city suggested that the
settlement cash go to the Brookside county homeless shelter in North
Richmond. The men protested, saying the shelter and its curfews never made
them feel welcome.

Mike Fitzgerald, one of three men who fought the blacklist, said Monday he
couldn't discuss the settlement without his lawyer, but said he was pleased
the ordeal may be ending.

In past interviews, the men said they relied on friends who weren't
blacklisted to buy them beer. But they said they fought the police on
principle. They took issue with police portraying them as chronic boozers
who bug the public.

They admit begging for change to support their habit, beer by beer, but
took umbrage with police labeling them aggressive panhandlers or criminals.
They also sternly defended their right to peacefully walk into a store and
buy liquor, pointing out that they are adults living in a free country.

Now, police are left with their old tools: laws against public drinking and
disturbing the peace, and beat patrol persuasion to dry up.

"The police should check the law," Sellstrom said, "before they try to go
make the law."


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