Public Intoxication

Each state and municipality may set its own laws pertaining to public intoxication, also known as drunk and disorderly conduct. Charges and penalties can vary heavily from place to place. In Nevada and Missouri, for example, there are no state charges for intoxication in public. Laws surrounding public intoxication are generally meant to protect the safety of not only the public but also the person who is being charged.

A charge of public intoxication generally alleges that a person is visibly drunk or under the influence of drugs in a public place. Typically, it is a misdemeanor offense, but if there are added charges like criminal mischief, stiffer penalties can be imposed.

Elements of the Crime

The elements involved in a charge for drunk/disorderly are twofold. First, the person must be in a “public place.” The definition of public place is something that is up to the courts to decide, and there is no single definition. Some jurisdictions will consider bars and restaurants to be public, for example, while others will deem them private. Common areas of apartment complexes and streets in residential areas may also be considered public in some states.

Second, their behavior or demeanor must show clearly that they seem to be intoxicated. An important note is that under some statutes, you can be convicted even if you are not drunk. The mere appearance that you are intoxicated or high on drugs and your behavior may be enough for a conviction, which means that a blood alcohol content test is generally not required.

Some statutes also require that an individual must cause a threat of harm to others in order to be guilty of public intoxication. An example might involve a drunk person throwing objects or attempting to fight passersby. This can also apply when people are a threat to themselves.

As an example, a man at a public park who is intoxicated, stumbling and yelling very loudly could potentially face a public intoxication charge. If that same man was not intoxicated but was still yelling loudly and stumbling, he could still be charged. However, if he was intoxicated but was calm and not disruptive, or if he was at his home, this would likely not be considered public intoxication.

Sentences and Defenses

An accusation of public intoxication, especially if coupled with an additional charge, such as disorderly conduct or criminal mischief, should not be taken lightly. Even though most jurisdictions consider public intoxication a misdemeanor, the penalties can remain on your criminal record. Possible punishments can include fines, probation, community service and even jail time. Many judges will also require that those who are convicted attend an alcohol treatment facility.

Aggravating factors can cause sentences to be more severe. For example, a person who had a pre-existing criminal record or had been cited for drunk and disorderly conduct in the past could face a harsher sentence. In Iowa, for example, a third offense is considered aggravated public intoxication and is punishable by up to two years in prison.

There are, however, many defenses to public intoxication charges that an attorney can mount in order to combat them. Some examples are:

  • You were not drunk nor acting as if you were.
  • Public intoxication is not a crime in the jurisdiction where you were arrested.
  • You are arrested while in a private location.
  • You were forced into a public location by police and then arrested.
  • Your behavior was the result of having taken medication in the prescribed dosage.

Legal Rights and Options

When you are charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, you may very well be able to fight the charge and beat it in court with the help of a criminal defense attorney. Once you have discussed all the particulars of your case, your attorney will know how to best advise you to proceed. For some people, this might be entering into a plea agreement with the prosecutor in order to help remove the “public intoxication” mark from their record. In other circumstances, it might be worth constructing a strong defense against the charges to avoid conviction altogether.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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