Can I be drunk on the front steps or porch of my house without getting a public intoxication charge? That is the question the Iowa Supreme Court set out to answer in its recent decision in State v. Paye. The answer … Yes.
The Iowa Supreme Court concluded that the front steps of a single-family home are not considered a "public place" for purposes of Iowa's public intoxication law. This may seem to be a "no brainer" but the answer to this question was far from certain. You see, if a court were to apply the Fourth Amendment, expectation of privacy test, the front steps or porch of a residence would be considered a public place. Short of a fence or a sign prohibiting a member of the public from approaching the residence, it is not uncommon for people to walk up to a residence and knock on the door or ring the doorbell to summon the occupants. For this reason, under the Fourth Amendment, a person does not have an expectation of privacy in that particular area. To further complicate things, twelve years prior to this decision, the Iowa Supreme Court had already held that the front steps and common hallway of an apartment house are public places under Iowa's public intoxication statute.
So how did the Iowa Supreme Court get there? Are we going to be seeing Bob Vander Plaats jumping on his soap box complaining about judicial activism with this decision? Probably not. The Court concluded that because Paye had not extended a general invitation to the public and could impede any person's access to the steps, they did not qualify as a public place for purposes of what Iowa's public intoxication. They relied upon the generally accepted rules of statutory construction which also consider the general purpose of the law being interpreted. The purpose of the public intoxication statute is two-fold: 1) to prevent nuisance and annoyance to members of the general public at the hands of intoxicated people; and 2) to protect against intoxicated people who endanger the well-being of themselves or others. Interpreting the front steps or porch to be a "public place" would have run contrary to the purposes of the statute and would have also resulted in an uneven and absurd result enforcing that law into the near future.
As the court noted: "If the front stairs of a single-family residence are always a public place, it would be a crime to sit there calmly on a breezy summer day and sip a mojito, celebrate a professional achievement with a mixed drink of choice, or even baste meat on the grill with a bourbon-infused barbeque sauce – unless one first obtained a liquor license. We do not think the legislature intended Iowa law to be so heavy-handed." They further noted: "Additionally, holding the front steps of a single-family home are always a public place would mean any intoxicated person who responsibly secures a ride home from a sober designated driver could be arrested for and convicted of public intoxication because they traversed the stairs of their single-family house while intoxicated. Iowans 'should not suffer a criminal penalty for taking . . . responsible action.'" (emphasis added).
So, to sum it all up. It is not illegal to have a tasty adult beverage on the front steps or porch of a single-family residence, nor is it illegal to be drink those tasty adult beverages to a point of being intoxicated at that same location. However, consumer be warned – it is still illegal to do so in the halls or common areas of an apartment building or anywhere that the public has a standing invitation to access, such as a bar. Crack yourself a beer and sit on the front steps of your home and rest assured you are doing so without breaking Iowa law. Cheers to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Just to be extra safe, we have created this nifty little sign to post on your coolers. Cheers!