The Investigators: Public Intoxication

The Investigators

On average someone gets arrested for public intoxication about once a night in the bigger cities of East Texas. But, does that mean they're all guilty of it? Even though on paper a PI is no worse than a speeding ticket, state laws make it a lot tougher to defend yourself if you didn't do it.

A North Tyler business owner contacted the investigators after he was charged with public intoxication. He said he was stone cold sober when he was arrested, and that he could prove it. 

The story starts on August 24th of 2012. Around 11:00 that night Tyler Police were making a drug bust outside the Hyena Club on North Grand. The only reason Jeff Caldwell was there that night was to close down the restaurant he owns next door to the Hyena Club.

"And I was kind of curious as to why they were looking into the vehicle I was driving with flash lights," Caldwell said.

Caldwell admitted he challenged the officers. But he said he was clear to police that his interest was as a business owner whose night was disrupted by the drug bust near his restaurant.

"He was like 'we don't care who you are, you need to go back across the street,'" Caldwell said. "And about that time the officer said 'well I think this guy is intoxicated."

In Texas, that's all it takes. If a police officer thinks you're drunk--to the point of being a danger to yourself or someone else--you're going to jail.

That night Caldwell was arrested for interfering with public duties and for public intoxication.

"You know, these officers have to make, sometimes, split-second judgment calls," Tyler defense attorney Reeve Jackson said. "Fortunately a lot of the time they're right. But sometimes they're wrong."

Jackson said an officer doesn't have to give you a breathalyzer for a PI, which may leave you wondering what your rights are.

"[People] have rights, but they're rights that are difficult to exercise if you don't know what they are and you don't know how to use them," Jackson said.

Jackson said if you know you weren't drunk, you should get tested immediately after you get out of jail.

That's exactly what Caldwell did. The Investigators confirmed a detailed report from a local lab that indicates Caldwell hadn't touched alcohol for at least 80 hours prior to the test.

Since the test was performed less than 12 hours after the arrest, in theory, it should have covered him in court.

"And once I got to court I was informed by the judge that if I made any reference to my drug test with the paperwork then I would be held in contempt of court and I would go to jail," Caldwell said.

The City of Tyler would not answer questions about the right to present evidence, like the test, in a public intoxication case. Without it, Caldwell was convicted.

"People that are intoxicated usually are belligerent and they usually have a temperament that goes with that where they want to fight someone whether that is the officer or other people in the area," Tyler Police Officer Don Martin said.

Martin wouldn't talk about the specifics of the case. He agreed that the law doesn't require the same level of evidence for a PI as a DWI.

"[A PI is] a higher class of offense," Martin said. "A PI is a class-C misdemeanor. We issue a citation, they sit so many hours in jail and then they're released."

We took a look at the numbers, comparing Tyler and Longview to Bryan and College Station because of their similar sizes.

Since 2010 all three of the cities have given out an average of one PI citation per day. College Station leads the pack with closer to two per day, which the city attributes to it's more than 50,000 A&M students.

Only Longview and Bryan keep records on cases that get dismissed, but in both towns it doesn't happen often. Relatively few people contest their case, and dismissals range between one and three percent of cases each year.

Like other departments we talked to, Tyler PD said its officers are taught to spot public intoxication.

"When they're being trained as an officer, that's just another element that they're trained on as far as this is how we deal with people that are intoxicated," Martin said. 

Jackson recommends getting a lawyer if you plan to fight a PI.

"The rules of evidence apply whether you're trying to fight your public intoxication or if you're trying to fight a capital murder case," he said. "It's the same rules and if you are not a lawyer, it doesn't matter. You are going to be expected to know them the same as any other lawyer would."

Caldwell didn't do that.

"I was not served that night," Caldwell said. "I was not protected that night. Actually, who I was supposed to be protected from that night was the officers and I had nobody there to do that."

Even though he fought the PI, Caldwell pleaded guilty interfering with public duties that night.

On Tuesday Tyler Police said there were three warrants out for Caldwell's arrest. He's accused of not paying up after being convicted of the PI, failing to show up in court, and being delinquent on a speeding ticket.

Tyler Police Chief Gary Swindle said the department has a system in place that allows people to file complaints in cases like these. He said Caldwell never filed a complaint.


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