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Drunk & Disorderly

When does having too much to drink become a crime?

Patrick Sullivan - September 4th, 2012  

Dear Readers: For this story, investigative reporter Patrick Sullivan looked at 12 police reports for cases of disorderly conduct obtained from the Traverse City Police Department, the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office, and the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office through the Freedom of Information Act.

Since the cases were selected at random and would not normally become the subject of news feature stories, we are not identifying the suspects or witnesses by name.

On a warm Saturday afternoon early in the summer, a week or so before Traverse City got really packed for the Cherry Festival, I walked with my threeyear-old son on a crowded Front Street.

We stopped for apple juice (for him) and iced coffee (for me) at Good Harbor Coffee and sat down at one of the outdoor tables to enjoy some shade.

In a minute or so, I saw someone coming our way: a large man who looked like trouble.

His age was not easy to determine -- he looked like he was in his 60s and he might have been in his 50s, but whatever his age, the guy had lived a hard life. You could see that in his face.

I could tell from 30 feet away the guy was rip-roaring drunk -- his eyes sparkled in that blank way and he shuffled and staggered more than he walked.

He passed us and I was relieved when he didn’t seem to notice us. He stopped a few tables away where several women sat.

It looked like he was just staring expectantly at them -- his mouth slightly agape, just looking at them, and they tried to ignore him.

He wasn’t really doing anything except making everyone in the area feel incredibly uncomfortable.

After a few moments the women got up and left. The man started to drift again, and this time he came over to our table, and he stared at my son and me.

Again, he wasn’t doing anything. He was just drunk, swaying slightly, and he had crazy eyes. He put out his hand to me, as if he wanted to shake.

I didn’t want to shake his hand. I said something like, “Look, buddy, we’re just trying to have a nice afternoon here, why don’t you move along.”

He stared for another seemingly long while.

And then he walked away. He went the direction he’d come from in the first place, west down Front Street.

We could see he was wearing a large, ratty backpack.

My son said, “Daddy, he’s camping.” And I said, “Yes, he’s camping. He’s on a very long camping trip.”


That event, among others, got us talking at the Express this summer.

We seemed to hear about a lot of borderline and drunken behavior around Traverse City.

The Express received letters about homeless people loitering and drinking in city parks.

It seemed like every week we heard about a drunken, late-night fight on Union Street or elsewhere as bar patrons spilled out onto the street, including one during the Traverse City Film Festival when two brawling men crashed through a plate-glass window at Wilson’s Antiques.

But what constitutes disorderly behavior?

And when does it cross the line and becomes criminal?

We looked at a dozen police reports for cases of disorderly conduct and talked to police and lawyers about where the line is drawn.

Here are four of the more interesting cases -- cases that may not involve serious consequences for victims, but are nonetheless tragic because of the depths to which the people involved have fallen.


Shoppers were minding their own business at Walmart in Traverse City on July 7 at around 11:30 p.m. when one of the customers started to drink beer, attempted to pick fights with other customers and screamed and yelled profanity.

A Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s deputy arrived in the parking lot and was greeted by an employee who pointed out the suspect, a 25-year-old TC man.

The deputy looked over just in time to see the man, holding a beer in one of his hands, try to duck behind a vehicle.

The officer went over to interview the man and it was clear to him right away that the guy was drunk. The suspect had gotten into the passenger seat of a pickup truck and had a 22-ounce can of beer between his legs.

The deputy described the man as “agitated,” said he wouldn’t answer his questions and wrote that he called the officer “a punk ass bitch.” He threatened that he was “going to publicly urinate in the parking lot,” the officer wrote.

The store manager told police the man had been inside Walmart and was drinking alcohol, yelling at customers, and trying to pick fights, and that he had been asked to leave.

The woman who called police said she and her boyfriend had been loading groceries into their car when the man started yelling at them, saying, “What the f--- are you staring at? You stupid f---ing pussy.”

They weren’t sure he was talking to them at first, the woman told the deputy, but it eventually became clear he was trying to pick a fight with them. They got in the car and started to drive away and the man charged at them, causing the woman to call 911.

Even after all of that, the deputy said he attempted to find a resolution without making an arrest.

“Several attempts were made to gain information from (the suspect) to resolve the situation with him leaving,” the officer wrote.

But he wouldn’t leave. He said he had nowhere to go.

The deputy wrote in his report that the suspect had to be physically restrained as he was arrested.


For a long time, the customer had been sitting alone and drinking at Hooter’s and not causing any trouble.

According to the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office report, he was there for hours one evening in February. The report does not contain an estimate of how much the 52-year-old TC resident had to drink.

Trouble began when a server determined he had had too much to drink and asked the man to leave.

The server “indicated that she has done this type of job for sometime and is used to dealing with patrons that get belligerent,” the deputy wrote. “She stated that it was nothing she hadn’t heard before, but that he was swearing and screaming at wait staff as he was hesitant to leave.”

Wait staff called 911 one time, and the man left, so they called to cancel the first call. Then the man came back for a new round of screaming and yelling, and police were called again.

This time, when the man came into the lobby, he spit French fries at waitresses and said, “That’s what gets places like this blown up,” according to the police report.

When the deputies arrived, they found someone who matched the description of the suspect standing outside, and staff were standing inside, next to a window pointing toward the man.

The deputy could immediately tell the suspect was intoxicated and he put him in handcuffs. The deputy said the man resisted arrest and had to be restrained.

As the deputy drove him to jail, the suspect tried to spit at him through the plexiglass and cage that separate the front and rear seats in the patrol car, the deputy wrote.

The suspect said, “I will f--- you up,” he said the deputy’s mother was a “slut” and his father a “big pussy,” and he said he would find his house and kill all his kids.


The man who crashed the fireworks beach party near Northport carried a jug of vodka which he swigged as he staggered over toward the beach.

He seemingly arrived from the woods after midnight on July 5, and partygoers sensed they were in for some trouble.

Police were called to a rural highway near Northport to deal with an “unwanted drunk person” after three men at the party restrained the unwelcome guest on the beach.

What led to that, according to a Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office police report, was a series of troubling acts.

The man was told, “’You’re not welcome here, you’ve got to leave the party,’” one of the witnesses said.

“He could barely walk. He sat down in a chair for a short time and was trying to speak a different language,” a deputy wrote, based on a witness interview. Witnesses said the man was attempting to speak to them in “Jamaican.”

Partygoers started to ask the man questions to figure out where he had come from and how to get rid of him. They searched his pockets and belongings for a lead on someone to call to come get him.

“Before my arrival (the suspect) also started chasing the girls around talking about his sister and that is when (the suspect) was held down by some others at the party,” the officer wrote.

At one point the 24-year-old suspect from Belleville mentioned that he had raped someone, once, according to one witness, saying, “You know what I did, you know what I did.” He “was lunging at people and he was darting at the girls.”

This witness said that once the group pinned the drunk man down on the beach, the suspect scooped sand into his mouth and growled at them.

The deputy arrested the man with some trouble -- he needed to place a knee onto the suspect’s back as he took him by the arms and put him in handcuffs, according to the police report.


The party must have started early for two TC men who caused a woman to call police because they were knocking on her apartment door for around an hour and wouldn’t go away.

Police later gave the men breathalyzer tests. The 34-year-old registered a .463. The 32-year-old a .392. That’s almost dead drunk. It was around 3:30 p.m.

TC Police were called to an apartment building on Eighth Street in February because a woman, a Community Mental Health patient, was scared after the men, who she didn’t know but who she thought might be staying in one of the other apartments, would not leave her alone.

The men were trying to get into her apartment, she told officers.

“She said that she told them through the door that they were not wanted and to go away; however, they refused to leave,” an officer wrote in his report. “As I was speaking with (the woman), I could tell that she was extremely upset and shaken up over the incident.”

When police arrived they found the two suspects outside.

The suspects were able to stand and walk and they recognized it was police when the officers arrived, however they staggered and swayed, an officer wrote in a report.

One of the suspects had his pants unzipped and was urinating as police approached.

The officer “told him to stop and zip his pants back up. At first (the suspect) didn’t react as he was looking down,” an officer wrote. The suspect was told again and he looked up at police. “At that time, he put his penis into his pants but did not stop urinating.”

The officers noted in their report that they recognized the other suspect right away. That suspect has been charged in Grand Traverse County with at least 14 different crimes.

The men wouldn’t respond to instructions or questions from police, however.

The officers wrote that the men fought back as they tried to arrest them, and that as they put one under arrest, the other tried to kick them. One of the suspects suffered a head injury when he fell on concrete during the scuffle.


Under Michigan law, disorderly conduct is conduct that makes a person feel threatened or causes a public disturbance.

Alan Schneider, prosecuting attorney for Grand Traverse County, said the threshold of when behavior crosses the line, in his judgement, is if someone else is injured by the behavior.

But that doesn’t mean someone has to be physically injured.

“Maybe their night was ruined when it shouldn’t have been,” Schneider said.

Schneider said his office doesn’t charge every time someone could be found guilty of being drunk and disorderly.

Take the case of a person who passes out drunk in the middle of the road. They are drunk. They are creating a public disturbance. They are creating a scenario where others could be harmed. It’s a pretty clear cut case.

But Schneider says in those cases, he’s happy that the police arrested the people and put them in jail for a night to get them off of the road, but he typically doesn’t charge them with drunk and disorderly unless there are some other circumstances involved.

“Do I charge them? Well, no, the police have accomplished what they needed to accomplish. The arrest was the appropriate thing to do. ... But to prosecute that would not be a good use of public resources.”

Other cases are clear cut the other way, like the man who spit food at waitresses.

“Throwing food at a wait person is just not going to be accepted in this town,” Schneider said.


TC Police Capt. Steve Morgan said he wishes prosecutors were more aggressive when deciding whether to charge disorderly cases.

He said the best person to judge whether conduct was putting people in danger or causing a public disturbance is the officer who dealt with the drunk person.

“I think (it should be) left to the officer that’s on scene that’s observing the entire event unfold before him,” Morgan said. “I would say that there are times when, as a department, we believe that a prosecution is the appropriate thing, although the prosecutor’s office makes the decision not to do that.”

Some of the offenders aren’t dealt with severely enough, he said, and they wind up coming back over and over again.

“It’s not so much frustrating to us, because that’s our job, but I think it should be an overall concern of the community,” he said.

Clarence Gomery, a former prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense lawyer and who defends people charged with drunk and disorderly, said he believes the drunk and disorderly law is used reasonably by police and prosecutors.

Gomery believes the law is often used to protect people from themselves.

“If an officer is going to err, they are going to err on the side of safety,” Gomery said.

Take someone who passes out in the middle of a road.

That person endangers their own safety and the safety of others, like anyone in a car that needs to swerve to avoid them.

They should be arrested, Gomery said, and then it should be up to the prosecutor to decide whether to charge them.

“The safety check is that the police report is made, and it’s given to the prosecutor to use their discretion,” he said.

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