South Carolina Public Intoxication Laws

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Just being tipsy in public in South Carolina is not against the law. However, anyone who is really drunk and acts like it can be charged with public disorderly conduct. This is a misdemeanor crime in South Carolina. While the law may seem somewhat lenient, it has been interpreted quite broadly by courts.

This article is about public intoxication itself. For information about driving while intoxicated, see Link.
For information on public intoxication generally, see Public Intoxication: Laws and Penalties.

What Is Public Disorderly Conduct in South Carolina?

Under South Carolina law, it is a misdemeanor to be found in a public place or gathering in a "grossly intoxicated condition," or to otherwise behave in a disorderly or "boisterous manner." While the term "grossly intoxicated" is not defined by South Carolina law, the term has been interpreted by courts to refer to intoxication that is apparent to an outside observer (often a police officer). Disorderly conduct includes using obscene or profane language in any public place or gathering, or within hearing distance of a schoolhouse or church. It also includes firing a gun within fifty yards of a public road while under the influence of alcohol, except upon one's own premises.

One aspect of the South Carolina law that has been the subject of court interpretation is the definition of a "public place."

In a Public Place

In general, the concept of public place encompasses areas where anyone may freely enter. But, for purposes of the South Carolina public disorderly conduct law, a person violates the law when he or she behaves in a manner that is observable by members of the public even when the person is engaging in the behavior in a traditionally private place.

A hotel room rented for private use is not a public place, so long as it is not open or exposed to the public, while the hotel bar is clearly a public place. Once a person has rented a hotel room for private use, it ceases to be a public part of the hotel. However, a guest in a hotel who gets drunk and causes a disturbance while in his room could be cited.

South Carolina's law also prohibits conduct if it is observable by members of the public, including police officers.

Conduct Observable by Others

Under South Carolina law, a person may be considered to be engaging in public disorderly conduct even when the only people present are the disorderly individual and the arresting officer.

Drunk Passenger Yelling at Cops From Inside the Car Convicted of Disorderly Conduct

South Carolina police pulled over a car for a moving violation. While the officers were conducting the stop, the "grossly intoxicated" passenger, while still in the car, yelled and cursed at the officers. The police then charged the passenger with public disorderly conduct. He appealed his conviction but the South Carolina court ruled against him, finding that his profane shouting at the officers and his extreme intoxication warranted a public disorderly conduct charge.

South Carolina courts have also upheld public disorderly conduct convictions where the defendant was drunkenly shouting obscenities at officers loud enough for passers-by to hear. And, a court affirmed the conviction of a man who, while intoxicated, shouted a stream of filthy language loudly enough for children in a nearby school to hear.

Defenses to Public Disorderly Conduct

There are several defenses to public disorderly conduct in South Carolina. Here are a few of them.

Conduct Not "Public"

Where an intoxicated person's misconduct took place in an entirely private setting, and not in the presence of a police officer, she should be able to beat a public disorderly conduct charge. For example, if Aunt Maureen downs one too many Sherries at Thanksgiving and starts arguing profanely with Grandpa about politics, the police should decline to cite Maureen even if Grandpa calls them to come haul her in. Assuming no one outside the house heard the argument and that Maureen did not engage in any criminal conduct (such as assaulting Grandpa with the gravy boat), her conduct was in a private setting and she has not violated the South Carolina law.

Not Intoxicated

Some medical and other conditions can mimic intoxication. A person visibly stumbling down the sidewalk and slurring his words may reasonably be viewed as publicly intoxicated and possibly in violation of the South Carolina public disorderly conduct law. But, if he is a diabetic and explains that he was suffering a hypoglycemic episode at the time, he should not be convicted. If the underlying conduct leading to the charge is the appearance of intoxication, the prosecutor must prove intoxication.

Similarly, an individual suffering from Tourette Syndrome, whose condition compels him to uncontrollably shout certain obscenities at times, should be able to avoid a public disorderly conduct conviction for cursing loudly in public.

Certain prescription medications may also cause a person to appear intoxicated. So long as the person is not otherwise engaging in misconduct, the simple appearance of intoxication caused by properly prescribed and used medication would be a defense to a public disorderly conduct charge.

Not Disorderly

Simply being drunk is not enough to support a conviction of public disorderly conduct under South Carolina law—there is no law in the state against intoxication itself. Thus, a woman arrested for public disorderly conduct merely for walking out of a bar in Charleston on "ladies' night" ("two-for-one specials" having been advertised) on the assumption that she was drunk would be acquitted.

Chronic Alcoholism

In general, chronic alcoholism has been rejected by courts as a blanket defense to intoxication-related crimes, so long as the law targets conduct, rather than alcoholism itself. In South Carolina, so long as some disorderly conduct occurred in public (as that term is defined in the state), the fact that the defendant is a chronic alcoholic who cannot control his drinking will probably not be a successful defense. If the chronic alcoholic is apparently drunk in public, it is the public nature of the intoxication that is targeted and not the disease of alcoholism. The idea is that a person may not be able to control his or her addiction, but he or she can control where it is exhibited. Drinking to excess in private is not illegal under South Carolina law.

However, a homeless addict for whom not drinking is impossible and for whom drinking privately is also impossible (due to lack of housing) may have a defense to public disorderly conduct, as he could argue that it is cruel and unusual to punish him for a disease exhibited publicly due to factors beyond his control.

Penalty for Public Disorderly Conduct

Under South Carolina law, public disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor and carries a fine of not more than $100 and a jail term of not more than 30 days.

Consult A Lawyer

Even though the penalty for public disorderly conduct is relatively slight, a conviction goes on one's record and is potentially available to employers, insurers, and others. As with any criminal charge, it is wise to consult an attorney experienced in laws in your area to protect your rights and determine your options.

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