A new San Francisco program to get the worst drunks off the streets and away from the bottle was deemed illegal last week by a California appeals court.
Mayor Ed Lee’s four-month-old program, known as “chronic inebriate court,” forced people into treatment if they had ignored dozens of “notice to appear” citations for infractions such as public drunkenness. Not only do these people need care, the mayor says, but they are a public nuisance and cost The City millions of dollars a year.
The program’s strategy was to hold chronic drunks in civil contempt of court instead of filing criminal charges against them. That meant they could be sentenced without a jury trial to a jail-based treatment program. A jury trial, the mayor says, would postpone the immediate services these people need.
However, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that brushing off a citation for an infraction does not constitute contempt of court because a “notice to appear” is not an official court order. While such a notice can be used against a person in court, the ruling said, it is issued by a police officer and not a judge.
Lee and District Attorney George Gascón said they are disappointed by the ruling. In the past month, the program has steered 17 chronic offenders into treatment, said Lee spokeswoman Christine Falvey.
“We feel like the process was working,” Falvey said. “It was reaching people. It was providing services.”
Last year, the Department of Public Health found that in just one year, 477 individuals cost The City more than $20 million in emergency medical services. Ten of those people racked up ambulance, emergency, detox and crisis psychiatric services to the tune of $2.3 million, the study said.
Following the ruling, contempt of court charges against those 17 offenders were vacated, although they are still due to go to court for their infractions.
But Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who filed the challenge with the appeals court on behalf of one of his clients, said the mayor’s strategy is unconstitutional. Adachi said it is “fundamentally wrong” to jail people without a trial.
“The program works like this: a person with more than 30 infractions is arrested and sentenced to 150 days in jail for contempt of court,” Adachi wrote in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.
He claimed no assessment is done as to whether the person is a chronic inebriate, or even already in treatment. One man who was arrested as part of the program, Adachi said, had been recovering from heart surgery and had been sober for more than three months.
He was “on the road to sobriety under his physician’s care,” Adachi said. “But he was arrested, labeled a chronic inebriate and thrown into jail.
“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 filed the challenge on behalf of Warren Morris, who failed to appear in court for any of the 22 citations he received between June 28, 2010, and June 30, 2012.
Despite the ruling, Falvey said, the mayor and district attorney are working to fulfill The City’s mission of getting these people into treatment.