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Foe of Public Inebriate Law Has Felt Its Hook

January 01, 1987|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

'I want to erase 647 (f) from the Penal Code book in California. I won't settle for anything else.'--Robert Sundance

He rode into Los Angeles on a June day almost 27 years ago on a freight train from Phoenix, hung over and desperate for a drink.

By the time he left the gutters of Skid Row more than 15 years later, Robert Sundance was a different man--a sober one.

And because of him, Skid Row is a different place.

Arrested More Than 300 Times

In the years he spent on its seamy streets, where police arrested him more than 300 times for public drunkenness, the 59-year-old Hunkpapa Sioux born Rupert Sibley McLaughlin on the Standing Rock Reservation in Wakpala, N.D., first changed his name--and then tried to change the system and the law permitting those arrests.

"I want to erase 647 (f) from the Penal Code book in California. I won't settle for anything else," he said last August.

From jail cells where he spent an average of 226 days a year for one four-year stretch, he wrote legal petitions, one after the other, all seeking to have Penal Code 647 (f)--public drunkenness--decriminalized.

Drunks, he argued, are sick, not criminals, a public health problem, not a justice one.

Seventy-nine of Sundance's petitions, written in pencil on lined paper, were thrown away or lost.

But in 1975, the 80th petition landed on the right desk, setting in motion a class-action suit that ground its way through California's courts for more than 10 years.

'Cruel and Unusual'

But even before the state Supreme Court upheld the legality of 647 (f) Wednesday, the suit, filed by Sundance and three other down-and-outers through the Center for Law in the Public Interest, brought interim court rulings, which effectively pulled the teeth of 647 (f). They forced the legal system to provide beds, food and medical screening for those it arrested and banned as "cruel and unusual" the paddy wagons police used to round up drunks.

In the last 10 years, Los Angeles police arrests for public drunkenness dropped from more than 50,000 to less than 4,000 in 1985. The Weingart Center, a downtown detoxification program, opened in 1983. And since the restricted law enforcement, the numbers of public inebriates visible on downtown streets have brought new attention to the homeless.

On Feb. 17, Sundance, who began drinking as a child on the reservation, will mark 11 years of sobriety after half a lifetime of drinking everything from real liquor to "rub-a-dub"--rubbing alcohol.

Still on Skid Row

He still lives on Skid Row, in the Rosslyn Hotel, "where I lived when I first became sober." He is director of the Indian Alcoholism Commission--the first job he ever held, beyond wartime Navy service and an unhappy stint in the Air Force.

Sundance always wanted more than the courts have given.

"I'll get what I want in the California Supreme Court," he said in August. "All I want to hear is 'unconstitutional.' "

About 35 states have decriminalized public drunkenness, said Sundance's attorney, Timothy McFlynn, who at first often had to track down his client after the bars closed at 2 a.m.

And it was on Skid Row that the apotheosis came. Sundance "started reading dictionaries, mainly, and whatever I could get in the libraries in jail. . . . I made up my mind I was going to change the system."

He changed himself, too, and his concerns extend to his fellow denizens of Skid Row.

"Where I'm at now, I hate everything that booze stands for, because I can see all the destruction it did."

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