Public Intoxication

Public intoxication is the crime of appearing drunk and disorderly in public. Most states criminalize a drunken appearance in public in order to maintain order and civility in public spaces and to ensure that citizens are protected from individuals who may unwittingly harm others.

Elements of Public Intoxication

The crime of public intoxication typically requires that an individual appears to be drunk or intoxicated and is present in a public place. Although this definition is relatively straightforward, it has two important elements.

First, under most public intoxication laws, the individual charged with the offense does not actually have to be drunk. Instead, he or she need only appear to be drunk or be acting in a disorderly manner. This is because the crime is meant to protect against a public environment that threatens or intimidates others, or discourages them from using public spaces. Accordingly, an individual who is not actually drunk, but is acting in such a manner, can be charged with the crime. This also means that, unlike with a DUI, no test for alcohol level is required for a public intoxication charge. A prosecutor can rely on the testimony of law enforcement officers or other witnesses who observed the conduct of the defendant and presumed the defendant to be drunk. Even in states that do require that the defendant was under the influence of a substance, such as alcohol or a drug, chemical testing is rarely required.

Second, public intoxication must take place in a public space. In some circumstances, this is quite obvious. For instance, an individual who is drinking boisterously in his or her own home could not be charged with public intoxication, while someone at a city park clearly could. However, it can be more tricky when dealing with spaces like a bar, stadium, or restaurant. Although these may be private facilities that are not owned by the government, they are still places where communities gather. Accordingly, some states deem these to be public locations as well. In order to determine what constitutes a public place in your state, you may need to look into the details of local statutes and case law.

Causing a Disturbance to Others or Oneself

In some states, a charge of public intoxication requires a third element:  that the defendant’s actions must have caused a disturbance or resulted in a threat of harm to others. This requirement limits the reach of the crime to those who are truly causing trouble in a public space, as opposed to individuals who may simply be very drunk. For instance, a young man who is stumbling and tripping down the street, but otherwise not offending anyone, would probably not be charged with public intoxication. By contrast, if the same young man began to throw rocks or challenge other pedestrians to a fight, this would likely result in his arrest.

Sometimes, this may even be applied to a defendant’s actions that only threaten his or her own safety. For example, a young woman who is drunkenly walking down the middle of a dark street at night, or who has fallen and broken her ankle but refuses to cooperate with police, may be charged with public intoxication because she is a threat to her own health and wellbeing.

Consequences of Public Intoxication

Public intoxication is typically treated as a minor offense and is usually charged as a misdemeanor. A defendant found guilty of public intoxication may face fines or probation, and may be referred to an alcohol treatment center. However, jail time is unlikely.