Public intoxication, public drunkenness, and “drunk and disorderly" charges are often used interchangeably. Both mean that a person was publicly drunk or under the influence of drugs.
Public intoxication is defined as someone visibly under the influence of drugs or alcoholic beverages in public. You need to have signs or symptoms of taking a controlled substance or alcohol. Generally, police officers will be called to talk to you and remove you from the scene — likely with an arrest.
Typically, public intoxication laws make it a misdemeanor offense, but if there are additional charges, such as criminal mischief, you could face stiffer penalties.
There are two basic elements involved in a public intoxication charge:
For example, if you are intoxicated, stumbling, and yelling at a public park, you could potentially face a public intoxication charge.
If you are not drunk but are still yelling loudly and stumbling, you could still face arrest. However, if you are intoxicated but calm and not disruptive, or if you are at home, this would likely not be considered public intoxication.
In some situations, you can be under the influence of alcohol and appear calm, but other actions will land you public intoxication charges, such as destroying property.
To be charged with public intoxication, you must be an intoxicated person in a “public place." What counts as a public place is generally up to the courts, as there is no standard definition.
For example, some jurisdictions consider bars and restaurants to be public while others might consider them private property. Common areas of apartment complexes and streets in residential areas may also be public in some states.
Private property such as a business building or home leaves it up to the owner's discretion if the intoxication is acceptable. If someone walks into your yard and starts destroying your property, you can call the police. They will likely be charged with trespassing and public drunkenness, or at the very least a charge of disorderly conduct.
Second, your behavior or demeanor must show clearly that you seem to be intoxicated.
Under some state laws, you can be convicted even if you are not drunk. The simple appearance of being intoxicated or high on drugs may be enough for a conviction.
A blood alcohol content test, such as a Breathalyzer, may not even be required to be charged.
Some jurisdictions require you to threaten the safety of others to be guilty of public intoxication. This can include actions like throwing objects or attempting to fight other people.
Actually fighting others, using a weapon, yelling harassing comments, or threatening others will escalate the charges to assault or harassment. If you get into a car, the charge may escalate to a DUI or DWI. Public intoxication may become a lesser included offense in your list of charges.
You can also be charged with public intoxication when acting as a threat to yourself. Threatening self-harm or stumbling around a road or dangerous area can qualify as threatening your own safety.
Some states view public intoxication as a side effect of alcoholism or chronic drug and alcohol issues. These states might charge someone for public intoxication but send them to rehab or other treatment options instead of seeking penalties. Some response teams can even take a person to the hospital for detox treatment and avoid courts altogether.
An accusation of public intoxication, especially if combined with another charge, can have serious repercussions. Disorderly conduct and criminal mischief are other common charges in public intoxication situations.
Even though public intoxication is a Class C misdemeanor in most jurisdictions, the penalties can remain on your criminal record for years to come.
Possible punishment for this charge can range from fines to probation, community service, and even county jail time. If you are convicted, many judges will also require you to attend an alcohol treatment facility.
Aggravating factors can cause sentences to be more severe. For example, if you already have a criminal record or you received a drunk and disorderly citation in the past, you could face a harsher sentence.
In some states, a third criminal offense is considered aggravated public intoxication and can result in a punishment of up to two years in prison.
There are, however, many defenses to public intoxication charges that you and your attorney can mount to combat them. You need to prove reasonable doubt about the criminal charges you are facing.
Some examples are:
If you are charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, you may be able to fight the charge with the help of a criminal defense attorney who has experience fighting public intoxication charges.
After discussing the details of your case, your attorney will know how to best advise you to proceed. For some people, a solution might be entering into a plea agreement with the prosecutor to help remove the public intoxication charge from their record.
In other circumstances, it might be worth constructing a strong defense against the charges to avoid a conviction altogether.