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Public Intoxication Laws and Penalties

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The Meaning of Public Intoxication (Public Drunkenness) 

Public intoxication is a misdemeanor offense in which a person is visibly drunk in public.

To be considered publicly intoxicated, someone must have a 0.08% or higher blood alcohol content. Typically, this results in arrest and charges of "public drunkenness" or "drunk and disorderly conduct."

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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
  • Public safety violations
  • Fighting
  • Threatening behaviors
  • Aggressive panhandling
  • 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 from state to state and even county to county.

Public Intoxication Laws

While laws surrounding public intoxication differ from state to state, Western society has suppressed it for centuries.

The laws against it are primarily based on the idea that public drunkenness is immoral and thus harmful to social and moral values.

To this day, public intoxication remains a legal offense in many regions.

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Public Intoxication Charges

Most states treat public drunkenness as a misdemeanor (except for Texas, where it's potentially a crime). In other jurisdictions, it's an ordinance violation when proven by a significant amount of evidence and tried before the municipal courts. 

To obtain a conviction for public intoxication, three elements are required.

A prosecutor needs to prove the defendant:

  • 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 don't require you actually to be intoxicated, but only appear intoxicated.

Typically, the statute specifies a series of sentences, with the maximum penalty increasing as the number of prior convictions goes up.

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 a person's public record.

Many see a charge of public intoxication as a minor issue. But when brought to a conviction, it can come back to haunt someone, tarnish their record, and disrupt their life. Jail time or even prison is possible in some circumstances.

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

A person accused of public intoxication can call and set up a consultation with an attorney. An easy Google search will produce local firms as well as national firms that specialize in the issue.

Points a good defense attorney will have the court consider:

  • Was the person inebriated or merely acting out?
  • Were they actually in public, or were they on private property?
  • Was the defendant ordered into a public place and then issued a citation?
  • Is there physical evidence or only an officer's word? 
  • Does the person have a prescription doctor allowing regular use of the substance?

It's difficult to prove public intoxication in court (unlike a DUI or DWI). Often, law enforcement will cite additional charges to ensure a conviction.

The prosecutor 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 a person's defense, saving their reputation and preventing jail. 

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.

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Updated on March 11, 2022
9 sources cited
  1. “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.
  2. Conn, Stephen; & Endell, Roger V. . "Issues and Possible Consequences of Recriminalization of Public Drunkenness: An Informational Report." Justice Center, University of Alaska, Anchorage.
  3. Jarvis, Suzanne V. “Public Intoxication: Sobering Centers as an Alternative to ...” Public Intoxication: Sobering Centers as an Alternative to Incarceration, Houston, 2010–2017, American Journal of Public Health, 13 Mar. 2019.
  4. Stockwell, Tim. “Policing for Prevention: Reducing Crime, Public ...” POP Center, Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. Clarke, S. George. “Public Intoxication and Criminal Justice.” Journal of Drug Issues, vol. 5, no. 3, July 1975, pp. 220–232.
  5. Friday, Paul C. “Issues in the Decriminalization of Public Intoxication.” HEIN Online, Department of Sociology, Western Michigan University, 1978.
  6. McClelland, Gary Michael. “Alcohol and Violence - National Institutes of Health.” Wiley Online Library, The American Journal on Addictions, 18 Feb. 2010.
  7. Pennay, Amy, et al. “Decriminalising Public Drunkenness: Accountability and Monitoring Needed in the Ongoing and Evolving Management of Public Intoxication.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 24 Sept. 2020.
  8. Hutt, Peter Barton. “Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness.” HEIN Online, Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 1967.
  9. Finsweet, James. “Public Intoxication in Texas: What You Need to Know? | Lawrina.” Lawrina.com, 2021.

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