Home / The Laws & Regulations About Alcohol / The Legal Definition of Public Intoxication

This article is not intended to provide legal advice or to suggest any form of legal defense regarding anyone’s behavior in a particular situation. Individuals who require formal legal advice should consult with a licensed attorney.

Charges such as being drunk and disorderly, drunk in public, etc., have to do with public intoxication. In some states, public intoxication is a summary offense, meaning that charges can proceed without the right to a jury trial or indictment. These charges occur when a person displays some evidence of intoxication in a public place. The person is usually being obnoxious, aggressive, or violating the rights of others or rules that are associated with a particular venue.

The laws regarding public intoxication vary widely from state to state and from local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction. However, in 1968, the case of Powell v. Texas where a violation of a public intoxication law was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States. The court indicated that charges of public intoxication were crimes that did not violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, and upheld that fines and even incarceration associated with violating local public intoxication laws did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, states and localities have the right to charge an individual with public intoxication, impose fines, and even give jail time, depending on the case.

The General Meaning of Public Intoxication

When an individual is arrested for an offense that is associated with being intoxicated and objective measures of their blood alcohol content (BAC) are measured, there is a national standard for legal intoxication. It is generally accepted that a BAC at or over the limit of 0.08% constitutes legal intoxication, and individuals are unable to operate motor vehicles when they have this BAC level. The same standard can be used to objectively determine if an individual is intoxicated if the measure is taken. Unless an attorney can question the circumstances under which the test results were obtained, this standard is universally accepted in the US as a measure of legal intoxication and cannot be disputed.

Public intoxication laws are designed to prevent individuals from disturbing others in public when they are intoxicated and to restrain individuals who are unable to control their own behavior when they are intoxicated. A charge of public intoxication necessitates the following factors:

  • The person appears to be to be intoxicated.
  • The person is in public.
  • The person is acting in a manner that is disturbing or threatening to others or oneself.
  • The person’s behavior is a key component to determining whether the person is intoxicated in most cases.

The determination of what actually constitutes “being in public” is made by the court in the specific case. There appears to be no legal definition of what constitutes a public place that is applied over all circumstances. Appearing to be intoxicated can also be a subjective determination if the person was not required to take an objective test that measured their BAC.

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Defenses for individuals who are trying to fight public intoxication charges can be quite variable. Attorneys can try to prove the following:

  • The person was not drunk or not acting drunk. This can be very subjective if an objective measure of the individual’s level of intoxication has not been obtained.
  • Public intoxication is not a crime where a person was arrested. States like Nevada and Minnesota do not have laws for being intoxicated in public (but Minnesota does have counties that have statues against public intoxication), whereas states like California outlaw public intoxication outright. Local jurisdictions may have different statutes and regulations regarding public intoxication.
  • The location was a private place. Because the definition of “being in public” can be quite subjective, attorneys can often demonstrate that the person was not in a public place.
  • The person did not violate a city or state law. Attorneys can often use the wording of the city or state statute to demonstrate that the specific case does not demonstrate a violation.
  • The arresting police officer did not follow the proper legal procedure during the arrest.
  • The person’s conduct did not constitute a specific violation of the law. Acting in a manner that is obnoxious or that potentially violates the rights of others or oneself is also often a subjective determination. Attorneys can use the evidence gathered in the case to demonstrate that the person did not actually violate an existing law or statute.

In states and jurisdictions that enforce public intoxication laws, the violation is most often a misdemeanor, which means maximum jail time is typically less than one year, time is served in a county jail and not in a prison, and fines are often less than $500. Some extenuating circumstances could conceivably result in felony charges.

Certainly, individuals who are intoxicated in public could be charged with felony offenses if they violate other laws. One cannot use the excuse that their level of intoxication excuses them from abiding with well-known laws and regulations. For instance, a person in public who engages in extensive property damage, assaults a person, or commits another crime that is considered to be a felony cannot use the defense that they were not responsible for their actions because they were intoxicated. Even though it is well known that being legally intoxicated results in significant deficits in thinking and decision-making, the courts do not accept this type of defense in the majority of cases.

Because the statutes regarding public intoxication vary widely from state to state and even from local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction, every case needs to be examined individually to determine if there is a violation and the extent of the violation. If facing a charge of public intoxication, it’s wise to promptly consult with an attorney.