Public Intoxication Laws and Penalties

The Meaning of Public Intoxication (Public Drunkenness) 

Public intoxication, also called public drunkenness or drunk and disorderly, is when law enforcement officers test a person who has been consuming alcohol in public. To be considered publicly intoxicated, they must have a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher. Typically, this results in legal action and arrest.

What is Disorderly Conduct?

Disorderly conduct is a broad spectrum of behaviors that upset public spaces. Examples include disregarding noise ordinances, public intoxication, loitering, disturbing the peace, or public safety. It can consist of fighting, threatening behaviors, aggressive panhandling, or failing to disperse during an emergency.

Disorderly conduct is informally enforced by law enforcement to "keep the peace" or maintain order. The laws around disorderly conduct differ state to state and even county to county.

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Public Intoxication Laws

While public intoxication laws differ state-to-state, Western society has treated public intoxication as a crime for centuries. 

The laws against public intoxication themselves are primarily based on the foundation that those found drunk in public can be harmful to the people around them or the social and moral values of the community. To this day, public intoxication remains a criminal offense in many regions.

Public Intoxication Charges

Most jurisdictions treat public drunkenness as a misdemeanor. In other jurisdictions, an ordinance violation proved by a significant amount of evidence and tried before the municipal courts. 

Public intoxication charges usually have three elements. To obtain a conviction, all three of these elements are required. A defendant will have to have:

  • Caused a disturbance or harm to another
  • Was under the influence of controlled substances/alcohol/drugs
  • Was present in a public place

However, in some states, public intoxication laws do not require you actually to be drunk, but appear high on drugs or appear drunk.

Typically, the statute specifies a series of sentences and the maximum penalty increases as the number of prior convictions increases. Maximum punishment seldom exceeds six to nine months of incarceration. In many jurisdictions, the only punishment is a fine. 

In the case of a fine, incarceration is still most often the result since a typical public drunkenness offender must "work off" the fine. Public intoxication is a misdemeanor and will stay on the individual's public record.

Many states see a charge of public intoxication as a minor issue. When brought to a  conviction, this crime can come back to haunt an individual, tarnish their record, and disrupt their life with jail time or even prison if the right charges included in the case against the individual. 

Seeking a skilled and knowledgeable defense attorney can change this outcome and ensure a cleared charge.

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Criminal Defense Lawyers & Free Consultations

An individual can call and set up a consultation with a Criminal Defense lawyer. An easy Google search will produce local firms as well as national firms that specialize in public intoxication and public drunkenness cases. 

Points to consider when consulting with a lawyer:

  • Was the individual inebriated or merely acting out?
  • Was the individual actually in public, or were they on private property?
  • Was the individual ordered into a public place and then issued a citation? One should consider what kind of evidence will be available at trial. Is there physical evidence or only an officer's word? 
  • Does the individual have a prescription or a prescribed therapeutic regimen from a Doctor allowing regular use of the substance?

It is incredibly difficult to prove public intoxication in court law enforcement will often cite additional charges to ensure a conviction. The lawyer will be looking for these additional charges:

  • Disorderly conduct
  • Drunk and disorderly
  • Resisting arrest 

A skilled defense attorney can help build the perfect case for an individual's defense saving their reputation and the individual from possible jail time. 

Most consultations are free and typically only take an hour or less. To ensure the best results for each case, everyone should research different firms and criminal defense attorneys as well as their state's laws.

Resources

“Vagrancy and Disorderly Conduct - History, Constitutional Considerations, Community Policing And Public Order Law, Bibliography, Cases.” History, Constitutional Considerations, Community Policing And Public Order Law, Bibliography, Cases - Laws, Police, Offenses, and Criminal - JRank Articles, law.jrank.org/pages/2245/Vagrancy-Disorderly-Conduct.html.

Conn, Stephen; & Endell, Roger V. (1982). Issues and Possible Consequences of Recriminalization of Public Drunkenness: An Informational Report. Report prepared for the Municipality of Anchorage. Anchorage: Justice Center, University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Updated on: August 13, 2020
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Alcohol Rehab Help Writing Staff
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
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