Up to 21,000 people a year could be charged $250 for the privilege of a night in police cells or a ride home in a police car because they are drunk.

The new fee, one of the few surprises in the Law Commission's long-awaited report on alcohol, could be imposed at police discretion on any of the 21,000 intoxicated people who are taken home or placed in police cells or night shelters each year.

The commission rejected a call by the Hospitality Association to bring back an offence of being drunk in a public place, because police felt this would overwhelm their resources at peak times and could not be enforced.

But it endorsed a suggestion by Wellington Hospital emergency department doctor Paul Quigley that drunk people who needed police assistance should be charged for the service.

"This would help to sheet home personal responsibility," the commission said.

It suggested a fee of "$250 or such an amount that makes the debt worth the cost of collection", and said unpaid debts should go to a debt recovery agency after 28 days.

The offence of being drunk in a public place was abolished in 1981, but police can detain people who are drunk in a public place or trespassing on private property if they are liable to suffer physical harm themselves or likely to cause physical harm to another person or significant damage to property.

Hospitality Association chief executive Bruce Robertson said a fee would be "a step in the right direction" to show that drunkenness was unacceptable.

But Auckland Council for Civil Liberties president Barry Wilson said the standard of proof of drunkenness would have to be higher if a monetary penalty was imposed.

"It's one thing to lock someone up and let them out the next morning. It's another thing to add a monetary aspect to that," he said.

John McCarthy of the Methodist Mission's Lifewise service, which serves Auckland's homeless, said homeless people picked up for being drunk needed medical detox facilities.

"We've had two or three deaths in the last few years of people who sobered up in police cells and died in the process," he said.

The St John Ambulance charges $67.50 to take patients to hospital in the Auckland region.


The Recommendations:
* Return minimum buying age to 20: Unlikely
* Raise the price of alcohol by an average of 10 per cent, or introduce minimum price schemes: Unlikely
* Regulate promotions that encourage excessive consumption and advertising and sponsorship: Possible
* Introduce national closing hours; 4am for bars and clubs, and 10pm for bottle stores: Possible
* Increase ability of local authorities to influence where alcohol is sold: Likely
* Introduce a $250 penalty for those picked up by the police when grossly intoxicated: Possible