Police department captain tells Sebastian County panel that a protective mechanism would need to be in place before officers can take publicly intoxicated individuals to a facility that isn't a jail.

Legal concerns were raised during discussion on the possible establishment of a sobering center in Sebastian County on Tuesday.

The planning committee of the Sebastian County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee considered a sobering center at the Hope Campus to divert intoxicated people for short-term treatment and avoid booking them into jail. The plan was previously discussed during the committee's Nov. 14 meeting.

Fort Smith Police Department Capt. Danny Baker said during the November meeting a protective mechanism has to be in place, such as a statute, that will allow the Police Department to take someone who is publicly intoxicated into custody and drop them off at a facility that is not a jail. During Tuesday's meeting, he provided handouts outlining Fort Smith Police Department policies and procedures.

"I think the policy we have would probably work, just needs some modification if and when we move forward on this idea," Baker said.

One section of the "Arrest Procedures" portion of the policies and procedures is titled, "Authority to Issue Citations to Appear." It states a law enforcement officer in the field acting without a warrant who has reasonable cause to believe a person has committed any violation of state law that constitutes a Class B misdemeanor or lesser offense or any violation of a city ordinance may issue a citation to appear in lieu of arrest or continued custody.

"And obviously, domestic violence is excluded from that," Baker said.

The section also states a citation will not be issued and the arrested party will be transported to the Sebastian County Adult Detention Center and be required to post a bond on the offense if the arresting officer is unable to positively identify the arrested person.

However, Fort Smith City Prosecuting Attorney John Settle voiced his concerns about the Police Department dropping off intoxicated people at a Hope Campus sobering center.

"First is that, by law and by statute, statutory definition, when a person is arrested for public intoxication, ... there's a determination by the officer that the person is a danger to themselves or others," Settle said. "It would have to be secure. If you're dropping off somebody who's passed out on the street here, like some of our drunks are, something happens to them at this place ... there can be legal ramifications, and quite frankly, I'm not excited about the idea of seeing the Hope Campus get sued. I'm not excited about the idea of seeing the city of Fort Smith get sued."

Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said "the San Antonio model" is the county's inspiration. It has both the diversion of the mentally ill and a sobering center.

"That's the state of Texas, we're the state of Arkansas," Hudson said. "We had the same problem with too many people in jail. The objective here is to take the nondangerous, nonviolent and divert them from jail. ... I guess the legal interpretation, that's the challenge before the prosecutor, before our legal counsel."

Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said when the county first started talking about the concept of a crisis stabilization unit to divert residents with mental illnesses from the jail four years ago, it was alien to everybody and was met with some resistance.

"Well, this is a whole brand-new concept for the community and law enforcement as well, but one of the things that we did, which was successful, was to go to visit some of these stabilization units," Hollenbeck said. "I'd suggest that maybe a small delegation look at one or two detox centers in other cities, and go and visit and take a look at it, and see how it's operated and how much benefit it may provide the community or the criminal justice system." 

Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox suggested Hollenbeck find out about what other counties might be doing. He also suggested Hollenbeck's findings be put on the agenda for the next committee meeting.

The committee will have its next meeting Feb. 13.