State lawmakers took the first steps Thursday to once again allow police to arrest people simply because they are drunk.
But proponents say the aim is not to punish them.
Without dissent, members of the Senate Committee on Border Security, Federalism and States' Rights approved a measure repealing a ban on cities enacting laws against public intoxication. SB 1177 now goes to the full Senate.
That vote, however, came only after Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, agreed to slow up the push. She promised to amend the measure on the Senate floor to instead create a committee to study how the law should be changed, postponing any actual new statutes for at least a year.
The mayors of Holbrook and Page told members of the Senate Committee on Border Security, Federalism and States' Rights that their communities have become havens for reservation residents who come to town largely to drink.
"It's not about filling our jails with intoxicated people," said Jeff Hill of Holbrook. "It's about doing the right thing. It's about helping them off the street. It's about having the ability to get them into a warm environment and detoxified."
It's also about cost.
Hill said his community pays $78 a night for each person it has to lock up. He said that's far cheaper than the cost of an ambulance to pick up and deal with someone found suffering from hypothermia after having passed out in the snow.
With the nearest hospital 30 miles away, Holbrook Police Chief Mark Jackson said an ambulance costs $1,587. And if someone needs to be flown by helicopter to Flagstaff for medical care, just the ride sets the city back $23,000.
The problem, said Jackson, is not intoxication. He said community residents can get drunk and walk home.
"The problem is when individuals go into the stores, they buy the beer, or they go in the bar and get so inebriated that they walk down the street and wander into oncoming traffic," he said.
Jackson said the ability of officers to keep that from happening are limited.
There are state laws which make it illegal to actually consume alcohol in public.
But laws against public intoxication, some of which went back to territorial days, were repealed years ago. And cities are legally precluded from enacting their own ordinances.
Jackson said his officers sometimes take people to detoxification centers.
"They don't have to stay," he said.
He said if his community is permitted to make public intoxication a crime, that paves the way for a judge to actually order someone into a detox program.
"It's not our goal to put all these people in jail," Jackson said.
Unlike laws on drunk driving, which have certain blood-alcohol levels, nothing in the proposal spells out what constitutes being intoxicated for the purposes of being arrested.