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Updated on September 1, 2023
5 min read

Public Intoxication Laws and Penalties

The Meaning of Public Intoxication (Public Drunkenness)

Public intoxication is a misdemeanor offense. It’s when a person appears in a public place while drunk. This offense is not the same as drinking in public, an act regulated by open container laws that vary across states.

To be considered publicly intoxicated, someone must have a 0.08% or higher blood alcohol content (BAC). This BAC can make it difficult for intoxicated people to control their behavior. Typically, this results in arrest and charges of "public drunkenness" or "drunk and disorderly conduct."

What is Disorderly Conduct?

Disorderly conduct is a broad spectrum of behaviors that upset public spaces.

Some of these behaviors include:

  • Disregarding noise ordinances
  • Public intoxication
  • Loitering
  • Disturbing the peace
  • Public safety violations
  • Fighting
  • Threatening behaviors
  • Aggressive panhandling
  • Failing to disperse during an emergency

Law enforcement officers police this conduct to "keep the peace" or maintain order. The laws around this conduct differ from state to state and even county to county.


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How Do You Get Charged for Public Intoxication?

To obtain a conviction for public intoxication, three elements are required. A prosecutor needs to prove that the defendant:

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

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.

In some states, you can be charged for public intoxication even if you only appear intoxicated. In contrast, Nevada and Minnesota don’t consider public intoxication a crime.

Criminal Charges for Public Intoxication

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

Maximum punishment seldom exceeds 6 to 9 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 offender must "work off" the fine.

When a person commits their first offense, they are more likely to receive community service or probation—not jail time. A public intoxication charge in certain states may lead to a 72-hour hold at a “sobering facility.”

Depending on city or state law, you can receive a public intoxication charge of:

  • Misdemeanor: Between $500 and $2,500 and can carry up to a year of jail time
  • Infraction: This public intoxication charge is a fine-only offense ranging from $100 to $500

Keep in mind that you can’t combat a public intoxication charge if you’re also charged with something else like theft, assault, vandalism, or getting a traffic ticket.

What Happens When You Plead Guilty to Public Intoxication?

Some judges impose informal probation or informal deferral, imposing specific terms that a person must complete within 90 days to dismiss a charge. If you fail to meet their terms, you must plead guilty in court or undergo a trial.

People who plead guilty to a public intoxication charge must perform the following hours of community service:

  • First offense: No less than 8 hours and no more than 12 hours
  • Previous conviction: No less than 20 hours and no more than 40 hours

In addition, community service must be “related to education about or prevention of misuse of substances.”


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Hiring Criminal Defense Lawyers for Public Drunkenness

A person accused of public intoxication can call and set up a consultation with an attorney.

Here are some points a good defense attorney will bring up in court:

  • 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). This is why law enforcement will likely cite additional charges to ensure a conviction.

Prosecutors will be looking for these additional charges:

  • Disorderly conduct
  • Drunk and disorderly
  • Resisting arrest 

If you need to find a good defense lawyer, you should research different firms and criminal defense attorneys and their state's laws to ensure the best results for your case.


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How Can You Contest a Public Intoxication Charge?

Fighting a charge you think might be baseless is within your legal rights. You can contest public intoxication charges using the following defenses:

Not Intoxicated

Judges and juries rely heavily on testimonies from arresting police officers, so you’ll have to use evidence to prove your sobriety beyond a reasonable doubt. Your strongest defense would be a blood alcohol test proving sobriety.

Not a Public Place

If a police officer coerced you from your home and onto the street, you could argue that you were ordered out of a private place. Some private properties where people gather (such as bars and stadiums) are public.

It’s best to determine a concrete definition of “public places” with an attorney.

No Disturbance

A person can argue that they were not bothering anyone or demonstrating disruptive/violent behavior. You may support this by having witnesses or testimonies when you were apprehended.

Prescription Medication

A person under the influence of prescription medication (such as morphine or laughing gas after a recent surgical or dental procedure) can present this evidence to a judge to overturn a charge.

If your defense is successful, a judge will place you on deferred adjudication, under which you can apply to have your record expunged.

Improper Procedure

If the arresting police officer didn’t follow proper legal procedures, such as reading a person’s Miranda rights, you could argue improper procedure in court.


Public intoxication’s status as a crime varies from state to state in the US, with most classifying it as having a BAC above 0.08%. Public intoxication remains a legal offense in many social circles, from nations to local communities.

Pleading guilty to a public intoxication charge can lead to hefty fines, several months of community service, or incarceration.

If you’re dealing with a public intoxication charge, you may consult a legal professional in your state. Doing so will help you navigate state-specific public intoxication laws and procedures to win your case.

Updated on September 1, 2023
9 sources cited
Updated on September 1, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Livingston, D. “Vagrancy and Disorderly Conduct - History, Constitutional Considerations, Community Policing And Public Order Law, Bibliography, Cases.” Law Library - American Law and Legal Information.

  2. Conn, S., and Endell, R.V. "Issues and Possible Consequences of Recriminalization of Public Drunkenness: An Informational Report." Justice Center, University of Alaska, Anchorage, 1982.

  3. Jarvis et al. “Public Intoxication: Sobering Centers as an Alternative to Incarceration, Houston, 2010–2017” American Journal of Public Health, 2019.

  4. Policing for Prevention: Reducing Crime, Public Public Intoxication and Inquiry.” POP Center, Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, 1997.

  5. Clarke, S.G. “Public Intoxication and Criminal Justice.” Journal of Drug Issues, 1975.

  6. Friday, P.C. “Issues in the Decriminalization of Public Intoxication.” Department of Sociology, Western Michigan University, 1978.

  7. Pennay et al. “Decriminalising Public Drunkenness: Accountability and Monitoring Needed in the Ongoing and Evolving Management of Public Intoxication.” Drug & Alcohol Review, 2020.

  8. Hutt, P.B. “Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness.” HEIN Online, Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 2019.

  9. Savchenko, Y. “Public Intoxication in Texas”

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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