Public Intoxication

Estimated reading time: 30 minute(s)

Public intoxication has been becoming a common phenomenon as alcohol use continues to rise. The term describes behaving disorderly while under the influence of this beverage, causing nuisance and general unrest. The government has different laws to tackle such incidents, which may vary from state to state. For instance, some states consider public intoxication as a summary offense which means that charges may proceed without the right to indictment or jury trial for a person who displays evidence of intoxication in a public place. This evidence must include a display of aggressiveness, obnoxiousness, or any violation of other people’s rights.

The laws in reference to public intoxication may vary from one state to another and even across different jurisdictions. People who routinely engage in heavy alcohol use or have loved ones doing so must familiarize themselves with these rules to ensure they remain safe and do not get in trouble with the law. Awareness regarding public intoxication and how to deal with it can also help them find the right channels to seek help.

What is Public Intoxication: Basic Elements of a Public Intoxication Charge

When an individual is under arrest for any crime or offense they committed under intoxication, law enforcement agencies measure their alcohol levels against a set blood alcohol content (BAC) scale. According to government rules, anyone with a BAC over 0.8 is considered to be legally intoxicated. Such people are not deemed safe to drive; if caught, the police can press charges. Unless an attorney questions the circumstances under which test results were obtained, this standard remains valid across the United States for measuring legal intoxication and remains indisputable.

By definition, there are three basic elements of a public intoxication charge, all of which must exist to support a charge. In reference to these elements, the police must prove that the defendant:

  • Was present in a public area
  • Was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or controlled substances
  • Led to harm or disturbance of another person

Let’s explore these factors one by one for more details:

Under the influence

Apart from establishing that the defendant was intoxicated, many states require prosecutors to prove that they were so out of control that they failed to care for themselves. In other words, they have to prove that the defendant posed a threat to the safety of people around them. For instance, a person walking out of a bar quietly and calmly does not threaten anyone around them. However, if the same person involves in offensive conduct or does something that annoys others, they may face arrest under the intoxication statute.

Causing a disturbance

A suspect’s demeanor and overall behavior remain one of the key components of the charges. Those who cause disruption or nags others are more likely to get on the radar of the police and receive criminal charges. For example, a person who causes a public disruption in Florida under intoxication may receive a degree of misdemeanor charges.

Presence in a public place

The offender needs to be present in a public area to receive any charges of public intoxication. Many people may not be familiar with the definition of a public place according to the law. Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of a public place that all legal experts unanimously agree on neither does any state define it. For instance, being inside your personal vehicle while it remains parked across a roadway may not be considered a public place. Hence, in most cases, the court must examine the case details and decide whether a person causing nuisance under intoxication was in a public area or not.

Texas is one of the few states that define what a public place means to some extent in its relevant laws. As per the law, a public place includes any premises permitted or licensed under the Alcoholic Beverage Code, which covers all bars across Texas. What this means is that if a person becomes intoxicated while being served in a bar, police can be summoned to arrest them.

Public Intoxication Laws: Defenses and Exceptions

People who receive charges of public intoxication have the right to raise legal defenses with the help of a criminal defense attorney. Some of these defenses may include the following:

The defendant was not under intoxication

A common defense that many attorneys use to combat public intoxication and disorderly behavior charges is that the defendant was not intoxicated when the incident occurred. This defense focuses on the lack of reliability or a total absence of it in the chemical tests that the police performed on-site. In such circumstances, the defense may also prepare an alternative explanation to justify why the defendant was behaving loudly, such as excitement over a job promotion or the excitement following victory at a sports game. The onus is on the prosecution to prove that defendant was intoxicated when they committed the crimes.

The defendant was present in a jurisdiction where public intoxication was not a crime

Some areas or communities may not have proper laws against public intoxication, such as Nevada, Missouri, or Montana. Similarly, the city of Milwaukee allows people to be intoxicated in public even though other municipalities outlaw it. A person charged with public intoxication in a Wisconsin city may counteract the charges by showing that they were in an area where public intoxication laws do not apply.

The defendant was charged when they were in a private place

A person cannot be convicted of public intoxication without providing evidence that they were in a public area at the time. Since there are many grey areas when it comes to defining a public place, an attorney may tackle the situation cleverly by proving that the defendant was not in a public area under intoxication. Places like a shared parking lot in a private community or hotel hallways may fall into these grey areas that the defendants can use for their own benefit.

Some other defenses that a defendant and their attorneys can use to free themselves or any public intoxication charges include the following:

  • The defendant was not drunk. This argument could be subjective if the authorities did not obtain an objective measure of their intoxication levels.
  • The defendant did not break or violate any state or city laws under the influence. Attorneys can raise this concern by citing the state or city statutes and correlating them with the defendant’s acts to prove that no violations were made.
  • The police officer who arrested the defendant failed to follow the proper legal procedure during the process.

Can You Go to Jail for Public Intoxication? Criminal Penalties

The exact punishment for public intoxication may vary depending on the state you committed it in, the nature of disturbance you caused, the type of intoxication you were under, etc. However, most states tackle such cases through an infraction or misdemeanor.


Misdemeanors may cause jail sentences extending from a few months to a year in addition to fines between $500 to $2500. If this is a person’s first time facing such charges, they may have pretrial diversion options, such as probation or community service, instead of proceeding to serve jail time.

Many states, such as California, recognize and treat public intoxication as a misdemeanor. However, if authorities believe that they were only under the influence of alcohol with no evidence of illegal drug intake, a law enforcement officer must connect them with an appropriate sobriety facility where the offender remains for the next 72 hours. If this happens and a person ends up in such facilities, they may not face criminal charges based solely on their intoxication levels.


Infractions describe fine-only offenses that are not punishable by serving any jail time. Depending on the area or jurisdiction a person was arrested, an infraction may be a summary offense, violation, civil infraction, petty offense, etc., with fines ranging from a minimum of $100 up to $500.


Is public intoxication illegal?

There is no definitive answer to this question, as it may vary from one state to another. Some states consider it a punishable offense, demanding the offender to serve jail time or pay fines. Other areas may detain them in their homes or treatment facility. Some areas may not consider public intoxication a criminal offense altogether without legal consequences.

Why is public intoxication illegal in some states?

Most states across the United States consider public intoxication an illegal activity due to several reasons. One of the most important reasons is that alcohol-induced intoxication can put a person in a position to infringe on other people’s ability to enjoy. Moreover, because heavy alcohol use can mess with a person’s thinking patterns, judgment, and decision-making, they may endanger someone else’s life in addition to their own, such as by engaging in drunk driving and getting into an automobile accident or planning a violent attack on someone. Such people are also more likely to behave aggressively in bars and restaurants, scaring those surrounding them. Some may get drunk so heavily that they lose control over their actions. Because their unpredictable actions can keep others on edge, legal authorities may have to intervene and take them under arrest to protect everyone.

Who is at the highest risk of public intoxication?

Because of the relaxed attitudes of people toward binge drinking, especially in places like bars and clubs, people may easily succumb to peer pressure and become publicly intoxicated. College students are at the highest risk, as statistics confirm public intoxication among the top five offenses committed by this group. Some other risk factors that may put people at risk of public intoxication include being under 21 years, male gender, and belonging to an upper-income level.

Can an attorney help people fight public intoxication charges?

Anyone who is facing public intoxication charges carries a right to defend themselves. This can be done on their own or through the help of a professional lawyer who fights these charges in court on a person’s behalf. Seeking the assistance of an attorney can be beneficial as they are professionally trained to handle court-related situations and settle the charges as fairly and positively as possible. For this purpose, a lawyer may review certain legal factors of a client’s case along with them, which may include one or more of the following:

  • Whether you or a loved one charged with public intoxication violated any state laws or city rules under the influence
  • Whether there is a chance to raise a viable defense to the violation
  • Where the arresting police officers violated any procedural or constitutional rights during the process of investigations and consequent arrest
  • The available plea bargain options that can help you or a loved one reduce penalties or avoid a potential conviction

What is the public health response to public intoxication?

These responses may vary from one state to another. For example, certain states like Alaska may not recognize public intoxication as a criminal offense but order law enforcement agencies to move the offender to an appropriate treatment facility. Similarly, other states may require offenders to be moved to their homes or detained until their intoxication state settles down. Because these statutes vary widely from one state to another and across different local jurisdictions, it is imperative to study every case in detail and look at the individual details to determine if any violation has been made and calculate the extent of the violation, if any.

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