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Patrick Springer, Published January 05 2013

Devils Lake, ND, cracks down on ‘habitual drunkards’

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – This city in northeast North Dakota is cracking down on a small group of people who are repeatedly jailed for public intoxication by making it illegal to sell alcohol to “habitual drunkards.”

It’s a step a representative of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe said looked racially motivated at first – a claim the city’s police chief denies and that may be more a function of the way the list was compiled and the reservation’s restrictive alcohol laws.

The initiative, launched about a month ago by city police, is aimed at curbing “a large volume of calls related to intoxicated persons in our community,” Police Chief Keith Schroeder recently wrote in a memo to liquor license holders.

City police initially compiled a “no serve list” of 21 people who qualified as “habitual drunkards,” defined as anyone taken into custody more than five times in the past year for alcohol detoxification or arrested for “any offense against the peace while under the influence of intoxicating liquor.”

A month ago, police distributed a memo explaining the ordinance as well as fliers of the 21 “habitual drunkards” who could not legally be served alcohol, Schroeder said Friday.

More recently, the list was culled to seven names because it turned out the others on the original list had violations outside the city of Devils Lake, he said.

A member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe said he informed police officials that names of residents of the Spirit Lake reservation were on the original “no serve list” for violations of the tribe’s “zero tolerance” alcohol law.

Mere possession of alcohol by tribal members on the reservation is illegal, said Paul Matheny, who was asked by the Spirit Lake Tribal Council to look into the city of Devils Lake’s “habitual drunkard” ordinance and policy.

Those violations apparently were appearing in the database Devils Lake police checked to compile the list, said Matheny.

Tribal members who were jailed for reservation alcohol violations were housed in the regional jail in Devils Lake last year because the reservation’s jail in Fort Totten was being remodeled.

Tribal council members had been hearing from upset constituents who were on the Devils Lake “habitual drunkard” list even though they had not been in the city, Matheny said.

Almost all of the 21 names on the original list were American Indians, giving the appearance they had been targeted by race, he added.

“To be honest with you, it did seem racially motivated because all the people in the book were Native American,” said Matheny, the general manager of the tribe’s Spirit Lake Casino.

Matheny said he hasn’t seen the revised list.

“It is a sensitive subject,” Schroeder said. “We are not singling out these people because of race,” he said, adding that the “habitual drunkard” list was strictly the result of those who met the threshold number of detox visits.

“It is data-driven,” the police chief said.

Six of the seven names on the revised “habitual drunkard” list are American Indians, Schroeder said.

Devils Lake police have been handling a large volume of calls involving intoxicated people, Schroeder said. Calls include public urination, fights and medical problems related to severe intoxication.

As of Dec. 9, 254 people had been jailed to detoxify from alcohol, Schroder said. At $35 per day, the contractual rate, the total jail bill to the city was $8,890.

A small number of people generate the majority of those calls, Schroder said. For instance, one person was placed in detox 47 times, accounting for 18.5 percent of the total.

“It takes up the officers’ time,” as well as the time of emergency room staff at the hospital, where severely intoxicated people often end up, Schroeder said.

But the primary reason for the crackdown on “habitual drunkards” is to protect health and safety, both for those who are intoxicated and the general public, he said.

Public intoxication is not a crime under North Dakota law. Police are authorized to jail severely intoxicated people for reasons of health and safety.

“This is hopefully to work in the best interest of the people we are denying alcohol to,” Schroeder said. “We are concerned for their safety. Throwing them in jail is not the fix.”

The response from bars and liquor establishments has been mixed, Schroeder said, with some regarding the policy as another way for police to threaten an establishment’s license. That isn’t the intent, he added.

Ailsa Olengerger, co-owner of the Liquor Locker near downtown Devils Lake, said people on the “no serve list” likely will just find others to buy alcohol for them.

“It’ll make it inconvenient for them, but we’re not opposed to it,” she said. “They’ll find a way. It’s something you can’t totally control, but you can make it a deterrent.”

Two patrons on the list came in to try to buy alcohol but were refused, Olengerger said. Two others on the list already had been banned at the Liquor Locker because of past problems, she said.

Schroeder concedes that the ban on selling alcohol to “habitual drunkards” is not a cure-all for a difficult problem.

“Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “What else can you do for this person? This is seven people who have problems and they need help.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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