Laws punishing public intoxication (also known as "drunken or disorderly conduct”) vary widely among states. The different approaches states have taken to regulating public intoxication reflect the various cultural viewpoints on the issue. Some states' laws reflect the feeling that because public intoxication disturbs the peace and harms society, it should be punished as a crime. In these states, public intoxication is a misdemeanor, punishable by fines, jail time, probation, and community service.
Other states’ laws reflect the view that public intoxication, especially when it is chronic, is a medical condition or social ill that can be addressed through treatment or other non-punitive measures. These laws provide for consequences that by-pass the courts altogether, including sending the intoxicated individuals to a treatment facility or a jail until they are no longer intoxicated. Some states that take this approach specifically prohibit local municipalities from passing criminal ordinances against public intoxication.
Some states do not have any statewide public intoxication laws at all. In some of these states, however, cities or counties have passed local ordinances punishing such conduct. Even in places where no public intoxication laws exist, individuals who are intoxicated in public may still be arrested if they are engaging in other criminal conduct, such as fighting or vandalism.
Finally, some states do not treat public intoxication as a separate offense, but nevertheless regulate it through laws prohibiting disorderly conduct.
This article summarizes the most common issues that come up with public intoxication charges, and explains the penalties or other consequences associated with the offense or incident. It also describes possible defenses that an individual charged with public intoxication may raise.
Learn about your State's laws on other alcohol related crimes.
What is Public Intoxication?
In most states that punish public intoxication as a criminal offense, there are several elements, or factors, that must be proved by the prosecution in order to convict a person of the offense. These include the following.
Appearing in a public place
Public intoxication laws require that the defendant be in a public place, rather than a private residence or other area that is not open to the general public. Examples of public places include sidewalks, streets, stadiums, and parks. In some states, bars and restaurants are considered public places because they are open to the general public. Additionally, some state public intoxication laws punish intoxication that occurs in areas where the defendant is on private property but without the permission of the owner, even though these areas are technically "private." For example, creating a disturbance while trespassing on another person's lawn may be the basis for a public intoxication charge.
Being under the influence of alcohol, illegal drugs, a controlled substance or other intoxicant
Many public intoxication laws require that the defendant be under the influence of alcohol, illegal drugs, a controlled substance, or other intoxicant (including inhalants such as paint thinner or glue). People whose behavior is traceable to the influence of a prescribed medication are not guilty of public intoxication.
How the prosecution proves that one or a combination of the substances mentioned above accounts for the defendant’s apparent intoxication is another matter, however. States rarely require proof by means of a chemical test, such as a blood alcohol test. Instead, the testimony of the arresting officer and any others present as to how the defendant behaved and appeared can be sufficient to enable the jury to conclude that the defendant was intoxicated. Some states do not even require that defendants actually be intoxicated; rather, that they only appear to be.
Causing disturbance or harm to other persons or property or presenting a danger to oneself
Most public intoxication laws require that the defendant created some kind of disturbance, such as injuring other persons or harming property, or posing a threat to his own safety. This element exists to prevent law enforcement officers from arresting someone who has had some alcohol, but is not creating a problem. However, in most states, the definition of "disturbance" is very broad—some states include actions such as blocking sidewalks or using offensive language. Further, if an officer believes that a person's intoxication is posing a threat to that person’s own safety, he may be taken into custody and charged with this offense.
Learn about your State's DUI/DWI laws.
Public Intoxication Penalties
The consequences for those convicted of public intoxication will depend on how the state (or municipality) has classified the behavior—as a crime or a medical condition.
- Public intoxication as a crime. In the majority of states with public intoxication laws, public intoxication is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by fines, jail time, probation, or community service. For example, a first offense for public intoxication in Indiana may be punished with up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In California, public intoxication is a misdemeanor. However, if the defendant is suspected of being under the influence of alcohol only, rather than illegal drugs, the law enforcement officer must bring the defendant to a "sobering facility," where he will remain for up to 72 hours. If the defendant is taken to a "sobering facility," no criminal charges will be brought based solely upon the defendant's intoxication.
- Public intoxication as a condition. Some states, such as Alaska, do not consider public intoxication a criminal offense, but require law enforcement officers to take offenders to a treatment facility. Other states require that the law enforcement officer take an intoxicated person to the person's home, or detain them until they are no longer intoxicated; these states prohibit officers from making an arrest record or any other record of the incident.
Potential Defenses to Public Intoxication Charges
There are several potential defenses to public intoxication charges. Most of these focus on showing that there is little or no evidence to support one or more of the elements of the offense, as explained above. Some common examples are explained below.
Not intoxicated. A defendant may argue that he was not intoxicated at the time of the arrest. But because juries and judges tend to believe the testimony of the arresting officer, this defense can be hard to substantiate unless the defendant has concrete evidence (such as a blood alcohol test) showing that he was not intoxicated.
No harm, no foul. A defendant may also introduce evidence to show that he was not causing a disturbance or actual or potential harm to himself or others. For example, witnesses may be called to show that the defendant was not bothering anyone or anything.
Not a public place. Another potential defense is showing that the arrest was not made in a public place, or that the defendant was involuntarily in a public place at the time of arrest. For example, a defendant may not be ordered out of his home by a law enforcement officer and onto the sidewalk, and then arrested for public intoxication.
Prescription medication. Finally, defendants may argue that at the time of the arrest, they were under the influence of a medication taken as directed while under the care of a licensed physician. For example, if the defendant was under the influence of "laughing gas" from a recent dental procedure, he may have a valid defense.
To learn more about prescription medication and public intoxication, see Can I be charged with public intoxication if I was under the influence of a prescription drug?
Get Legal Help for Public Intoxication
If you are charged with violating a public intoxication law, even if the consequences are relatively mild, consider consulting with a criminal defense attorney who is familiar with how these cases are handled in your area. An experienced attorney can help you understand the charges against you, explain your options, discuss possible defenses you may raise, and protect your rights.
Public Intoxication Laws by State
Choose your state from the list below to find information about your states laws regarding public intoxication. If your state does not have an article, check back later.