Public drunkenness: Victoria radically changes booze rules

The Victorian Parliament passed historic legislation to decriminalise public drunkenness today in a move that was triggered by a tragic death.The Andrews government said the move will save lives by ensuring no one can be locked in a police cell just for being drunk in public.
“It paves the way for public drunkenness to be treated as a health issue, not a crime,” his government said in a statement.
“These laws have been informed by Aboriginal communities and health experts — who have advocated for this reform for decades — and enable the Government to move to culturally safe and appropriate model that prioritises the health and safety of individuals who are intoxicated in public, as well as the broader community.”
This will include more outreach services, training for first responders and new sobering up services — making sure people are transported to a safe place where they can receive support if they need it.
The change means Queensland is now the only state in Australia that still has a specific offence of public drunkenness, a charge that a royal commission found disproportionately affected Aboriginal people.
Public drunkenness was decriminalised in New South Wales in 1979 — although police still have the discretion to issue “on the spot” fines or infringement notices for “drunk in public”, a fine that costs the individual over $480.
The Northern Territory got rid of the law in 1979 and in South Australia did the same in 1984.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this section article contains names and images of people who have died
Some 38 years later, Victoria has scrapped the rule — spurred on by the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in 2017.
The 55-year-old was catching the V/Line service from Echuca to Melbourne on December 5 that year to see her family. She had been drinking and nodded off.
She was arrested for public drunkenness on the train and taken to the Castlemaine police station.
Officers left her alone for four hours despite the fact she had repeatedly fallen and hit her head.
When they eventually called an ambulance because she was non-responsive — paramedics took an hour to arrive — she was taken to Bendigo Hospital, and eventually transferred to Melbourne.
She died 17 days later from horrific brain injuries.
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In a coronial inquest examining whether systemic racism had played a part in how Ms Day was treated, it was decided that the matter should be referred to prosecutors because of “the possibility an indictable offence had occurred”.
On the advice of prosecutors, police announced in August last year they would not lay criminal charges over the death.
The Victorian government promised to decriminalise public drunkenness following the death, with parliament approving the changes today.
“Today we have delivered a reform that is long overdue — public drunkenness laws have caused too much pain for too many and we acknowledge everyone who has fought tirelessly for this change,” said the state’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes.
“We’ll continue to work closely with Aboriginal communities, health experts and other stakeholders, including police to establish a health model that focuses on support and safety, not punishment.”
Meanwhile, Ms Day’s family’s family have welcomed the move.
“To think if this law had been decriminalised when the royal commission had first recommended it, our mum could still be here today,” Ms Day’s daughter Apryl Watson told the ABC.
On Australia Day, Apryl Watson took to the stage at Brisbane’s Invasion Day rally to share her mother’s story.
“She was travelling on a train and she was asleep when she was arrested,” Ms Watson said. “She was racially profiled by the V/Line conductor and chucked in a cell.
“Within that first hour she had a traumatic hit to the head and she died 17 days later.
“The coroner found that the train conductor acted in a racist way but failed to find it in the police.
“Them fellas, right after putting mum in that van, drove to pick up a drunk white woman around the corner and drove her home safely and didn’t even issue her a fine.”