Pennsylvania Public Intoxication Laws

Being drunk or high in public can land you in hot water.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated April 19, 2024

Being intoxicated in public can lead to your arrest in Pennsylvania if you could hurt yourself or others or are causing a public disturbance.

Is Public Intoxication Illegal in Pennsylvania?

While simply being drunk or high in public isn't a crime, it becomes one when a person is:

  • "manifestly under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance," and
  • disturbing others or poses a danger to oneself, other persons, or property.

An officer can arrest someone who meets these conditions.

When Is Someone Manifestly Under the Influence?

Smelling of alcohol, slurred speech, or slight stumbling won't likely rise to the level of manifestly under the influence. However, someone who's loud, belligerent, stumbling all over the place, or picking fights could be arrested. Similarly, an officer may arrest someone who's so high they can't function.

When Is Someone a Danger to Persons or Property?

The person sitting alone in a park and not doing anything isn't likely a danger to themself or others. But if that person is close to passing out, they may pose a danger to themself. Police could arrest that person so they can sober up someplace safe. Where a person was described as "bouncing off the walls" in a public place, a court said the officer was justified in making an arrest. Someone who's trying to pick fights could endanger themself or others. If the person starts throwing beer bottles or jumping on the bar, they could be arrested for being annoying to others and as a danger to property.

What Is Considered a Public Place?

Police can arrest persons for public intoxication only if they are in a place that's open to the public, like a bar, store, restaurant, or park. A place may be public even if it's privately owned, so long as it is generally accessible to the public. For example, a person who was staggering drunk down the street of a gated, and therefore somewhat private, neighborhood may be found guilty of public drunkenness.

In contrast, a private club that is open only to its members is not a public place, and a person who is stumbling drunk and harassing people inside a private club cannot be guilty of public drunkenness. Police can't escort someone off private property to a public space to make an arrest either.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. § 5505 (2024); Comm. v. Whritenour, 751 A.2d 687 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2000); Comm. v. Meyer, 431 A.2d 287 (1981).)

What Is the Punishment for Public Drunkenness in Pennsylvania?

Public drunkenness is a summary offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500. Subsequent offenses are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Even though public intoxication doesn't carry jail time, police officers can still arrest you without a warrant and conduct a search. If you have any drugs or illegal weapons on your person, you could face additional charges. For underage minors, an arrest could lead to minor consumption charges.

(18 Pa. C.S.A. § 5505; 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8902 (2024).)

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Being charged with public drunkenness can result in unpleasant consequences. If you are charged with a crime or violation involving alcohol, contact a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney. An attorney can protect your rights as you navigate the criminal justice system.

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