What is public intoxication?

Public intoxication, otherwise known as public drunkenness, drunk and disorderly, intoxicated in public, or drunk in public, is controlled by both local ordinances and state law. While public intoxication laws will vary slightly among jurisdiction, if an individual is in a public place, voluntarily becomes or appears to be visibly intoxicated, and acts in a way that endangers himself or others, or otherwise infringes on another’s individual or property rights, this is generally enough to obtain a public intoxication conviction. Obstructing public walkways while visibly intoxicated can also lead to a public intoxication charge. In some jurisdictions, simply annoying other individuals while intoxicated in public can be grounds for a public intoxication charge.

Public intoxication charges are not limited to individuals under the influence of alcohol. Being under the influence of drugs, including over-the-counter medication or prescription medication, can also lead to a charge of public intoxication. However, unlike other alcohol and drug-related crimes, such as driving under the influence, specific levels of intoxication are not needed to convict for the crime of public intoxication: an individual can be charged with public intoxication when he is or appears to be visibly intoxicated, no matter the level of drugs or alcohol in his system.

Defenses to a Public Intoxication Charge

When arrested for public intoxication, the individual can fight the charge by a showing of one or several public intoxication defenses. One defense to public intoxication is based on the voluntariness of intoxication. In other words, in order to be convicted of public intoxication, an individual must have ingested the drugs or alcohol willfully, or voluntarily. If an individual is unknowingly drugged, or otherwise involuntarily ingests drugs or alcohol, this is a complete defense to a public intoxication charge. 

While laws will vary depending on jurisdiction, simply being drunk in public is usually not illegal. Many individuals have alcoholic drinks and will get drunk in bars, clubs or restaurants. Generally, to get charged with public intoxication, the individual’s behavior has to put him or someone else’s safety at risk, or otherwise infringe on someone else’s rights. If the individual can show (through witnesses) that his behavior did not meet the level necessary to be arrested for public intoxication, this also can be a defense to the charge of public intoxication. 

Being in public is also a necessary element of the crime of public intoxication. This means that if the police arrest an individual for public intoxication while she is in a private home, or in a hotel room, the individual can fight the charge since she was not in public. However, public does not necessarily mean that an individual be in an area where the general public frequents. Public can also be defined as common areas in apartment buildings, or just outside a privately owned residence.

Even if a person willfully ingests drugs or alcohol in a public place, and his behavior meets the requisite level to be charged with public intoxication, if he was administered medication for medical or therapeutic purposes, this also is a defense to the charge of public intoxication. However, it is only a defense to the extent the individual can show that he took the proper dosage – this means that if someone is prescribed pain medication once a day, and he took five times the dosage prescribed, this defense will most likely not work.

Penalties for a Public Intoxication Conviction

Penalties for a public intoxication conviction will vary both by jurisdiction and whether the individual has prior offenses. In most states and counties, public intoxication is usually charged as a misdemeanor offense, which can mean jail time, fines, community service, probation, or any combination of the above. Having prior public intoxication convictions can increase these penalties. Some jurisdictions also require that the individual charged with public intoxication be committed to a drug and/or alcohol treatment center for a number of days or weeks as well.

Even as a misdemeanor charge, a public intoxication conviction will stay on an individual’s permanent criminal record. Not only can this be embarrassing, it also may affect an individual’s ability to be admitted into educational programs or to become employed, as many institutions and employers will request information about criminal records.