In Isla Vista, many a reveler has learned the hard way that if someone is caught drunk in public, the individual is liable to receive a misdemeanor.
In Santa Barbara proper, things are a little different.
There, individuals picked up by police officers for petty public intoxication offenses are often taken to the Santa Barbara Sobering Center. At the center, the perpetrator stands to receive a warm blanket and private counseling from the center’s civilian staff. Furthermore, at their 17 E. Haley St. workplace, intake counselors allow their clients to sober up and leave a few hours later – without a mark on their criminal records.
Legally, officers in the city of Santa Barbara may bring publicly intoxicated individuals to the Sobering Center if they determine that the suspect has not committed any other crime, will not physically resist, and is not a flight risk.
This alternative, provided for in the California State Penal Code, is not afforded to Goleta and Isla Vista residents, who, upon police suspicion of public intoxication, are booked into the Santa Barbara County Jail and housed, pending sobriety. The booking process involves the issuance of a public intoxication misdemeanor that, according to criminal defense attorney William C. Makler, can come back to haunt a student once sobriety sets in.
“A criminal record can outlive the individual,” Makler said. “These records are easy to access widely by employers, investigators and the government. Having a criminal record is more damaging than ever before and more permanent than ever before.”
SB Police Dept. Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte said he has made countless drops at the sobering center in his 18 years in law enforcement. The center, he said, serves as a middle ground for people who are intoxicated in public but do not deserve to be booked into jail.
“Sometimes a person who rises to the level of being taken into custody doesn’t need to be booked into county jail, if there’s another option where the person can just sleep off the intoxication and, in doing so, possibly become further educated,” Duarte said.
While suspects who are brought to the sobering center with an additional DUI or open container charge will have those filed against their records, intake counselor Lonnie Criffield said these individuals are the exception. Most people routed to the establishment are not serious lawbreakers and only need a safe place to sober up without the threat of criminal prosecution, he said.
“If a person is being rowdy, obnoxious or rude, or they have a warrant, [officers] will take them to jail,” Criffield said. “If they’re just too drunk to be wandering around, they’ll take them here and give them about four hours to sober up.”
The sobering center receives mostly homeless clients during the day, but Criffield said it caters more to students after dark. Criffield said he believes his student clients appreciate the informal atmosphere of the program as opposed to the booking procedure at the county jail.
“Most of the students who come here realize it’s not a big thing,” Criffield said. “The police bring them here to keep them safe. They have the opportunity to sober up and leave. The police have something on the record, but there’s no court appearance involved. If it’s just intoxicated in public, there’s nothing on your [criminal] record whatsoever.”
The center is staffed by five full-time intake counselors and one manager, who said they believe they serve not only their clientele but also the community at large. According to Criffield, each time an officer delivers an intoxicated person to the center instead of processing the individual into jail, county taxpayers save $200 that otherwise would have been spent booking the suspect into the crowded the court system.
While those picked up in Santa Barbara city have the chance of reaping the sobering center’s benefits, students and residents arrested for public intoxication in I.V. do not, and are instead routed directly to county jail. As I.V. is responsible for a vast majority of the county’s public intoxication pickups, Makler said he questioned the rationale for not including such a project in an area it would best serve.
“Why don’t we have one in Isla Vista?” Makler said. “Isla Vista is the number one place for public intoxication arrests in the county. It’s more than unfortunate that there’s not one yet in I.V. and there hasn’t been for many years. The consequence is that many I.V. residents are being criminalized for being drunk in public. It’s such a normal, accepted part of our culture, it’s a shame law enforcement has been so aggressive about criminalizing it.”
Currently, a new I.V. Foot Patrol office is under construction at 6504 Trigo Rd. It features two holding cells each designed to contain suspects until they can be transferred to county jail.
According to IVFP Lt. Brian Olmstead, although it has been considered many times, a sobering center is not suited to I.V.’s needs or environment.
“Basically, it’s been looked at a couple times,” Olmstead said. “We would have added cost because we would have to develop the center. We already have a facility we can place someone in where they will be safely monitored, and that happens to be the jail.”
Olmstead said that besides I.V.’s lack of space and available staff, his additional concerns included a sobering center’s revolving door policy that could put potentially at-risk individuals back out on the street. Olmstead also said that, without the deterrent of a misdemeanor charge, I.V. and Goleta residents would have no reason to observe the law.
“If someone’s about to violate the law, [a misdemeanor] is one of the consequences to deter people from committing the crime,” Olmstead said. “There’s a belief that there should be consequences if someone’s going to break the law and drink to the extreme where they can’t take care of themselves.”
SB County Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman Sgt. Alex Tipolt said that officers would most likely utilize a sobering center if there was already a system in place in I.V., however, such a program would have to be assessed and approved by the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors.
Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, I.V.’s only elected official, said he would need to research the idea to assess the net benefits for the community.
He said he had never even considered the idea before – it had never been brought to his attention.