Public intoxication, also called public drunkenness, is a misdemeanor crime that occurs when people are visibly drunk or under the influence of drugs in public. These laws exist to discourage people from disturbing others in public. They also exist to remove people from such spaces who appear to be unable to stop themselves from causing harm others or even themselves.
This article includes more information about public intoxication laws, charges associated with them, and defenses that may be available to the accused.
Basic Elements of a Public Intoxication Charge
By definition, a public intoxication charge usually has three basic elements, all of which must exist to support a criminal charge. Specifically, it must be shown that a defendant:
- Was under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or controlled substances,
- Caused a disturbance or harm to another person, and
- Was present in a public place.
Under the Influence
In addition to establishing that the suspect was under the influence, many states also require prosecutors to prove that the suspect seemed so out of control that they did not appear to be able to take care of themselves, or that they presented a threat to the safety of others.
For example, a person who walks out of a Birmingham bar calmly and quietly could stroll down the sidewalk with little worry. However, if that person instead draws attention to themselves with boisterous or offensive conduct that annoys others, they could be cited under Alabama's public intoxication statute.
Causing a Disturbance
The behavior and demeanor of the suspect will be a key component of the charges. A person who causes disruption and bothers others is more likely to attract the attention of the police and receive charges that stick. In Florida, for example, a person who causes such a disturbance could be charged for disorderly intoxication which is classified as misdemeanor in the second degree.
Presence in a Public Place
Another key element of any public intoxication charge is that the offender must actually be in public. What makes a place public? There is no single legal definition of a public place, and not all states define it. For example, a person's vehicle is not typically considered "private" when parked alongside a roadway or in a public parking area. Determining the public or private nature of the location where the incident occurred is the type of issue that courts examine in public intoxication cases.
Texas is one of those states that provides some definition of "public place" in its public intoxication statute. This statute includes as public places "premises licensed or permitted under the Alcoholic Beverage Code." This definition includes just about every bar in Texas, so charges could arise for disruptive customers if the police are summoned.
Public Intoxication: Defenses and Exceptions
Those accused of being publicly intoxicated may be able to raise legal defenses, especially with the assistance of a criminal defense attorney.
The Defendant was not Intoxicated
A common defense to charges of being drunk and disorderly in public is that the defendant was not actually intoxicated at the time of the incident. This defense often focuses on the absence or lack of reliability in any chemical tests performed by police.
Under such circumstances, the defense may outline an alternative explanation for loud behavior by attributing it to some other cause, such as enthusiasm over a promotion or excitement over the outcome of a sporting event. The prosecution must prove that the defendant was intoxicated. In other words, the burden of proving this element of the crime rests on the prosecutor.
The Defendant was Cited in a Jurisdiction where Public Intoxication is Not a Crime
Some communities do not have laws against public intoxication. States like Nevada, Montana, and Missouri do not criminalize being drunk in public. The city of Milwaukee allows people to be drunk in public, although many other municipalities in Wisconsin outlaw public drunkenness. Therefore, a person cited for public intoxication under the ordinance of La Crosse (another city in Wisconsin) could defeat the charge by showing that they were actually across the municipal boundary line and in Onalaska, which lacks a public intoxication law.
The Defendant was Cited for Public Intoxication While in a Private Place
One cannot be convicted of a public drunkenness charge without evidence that the defendant was actually in a public place. Some grey areas exist along the public-private spectrum, such as hotel hallways or a shared parking lot in a private and gated apartment community. A clever defense attorney can argue that these locations are actually private and defeat a charge (or create the basis for an appeal). Also, if a police officer ordered the defendant to come out of a private area and into a public place, a successful defense can be raised on that issue.
Public Intoxication Law Charges: Your Legal Rights
If you or a loved one are facing public intoxication or drunk and disorderly charges, you have a right to defend yourself and fight the charges in court. However, you should have the assistance of a lawyer. Some of the legal factors that a public intoxication defense attorney can review with you include:
- Whether you or your loved ones, given the particular facts of your case, actually violated city or state law
- Whether the arresting police violated constitutional or procedural rights in the course of the investigation and arrest
- Whether a viable defense to the violation can be raised
- What plea bargain options could help you reduce penalties or even avoid a conviction altogether
Get Professional Legal Help with Your Public Intoxication Charge
Public intoxication convictions do not typically result in long jail sentences, but damage to your reputation could be difficult to mend. It could follow you for years to come. The assistance of a qualified criminal defense attorney can help in eliminating or minimizing the impact of these charges on your life. Find a local criminal defense attorney today.