Public Intoxication

The term “public intoxication” refers to an individual acting in a harmful or obstructionist manner while in public as a result of consuming alcohol or drugs. For example, public intoxication occurs when an individual drinks too much while on a train, then harasses his fellow passengers who are taking the train home. His conduct is, at best, annoying, but because he is inebriated, it can also become dangerous. To explore this concept, consider the following public intoxication definition.

Definition of Public Intoxication


  1. The act of obstructing, harming, or harassing people in public while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.


1375–1425         late Middle English

What is Public Intoxication?

Public intoxication refers to a person harassing, threatening, or annoying the public while drunk or high on drugs. Another term for public intoxication is “drunk and disorderly conduct.” The key difference in the public intoxication meaning, and being “drunk in public,” is the “disorderly” part of “drunk and disorderly.”

Someone must act in such a manner as to bother others in a public space for the police to charge him with public intoxication. If he is simply drunk and standing around but not bothering anyone, this is not enough to warrant a criminal charge.

Public Intoxication Laws

Public intoxication laws are different for every state. For example, public intoxication laws in some states make it a misdemeanor to be so drunk that you are lying on the ground, obstructing foot traffic. Here are some additional examples of public intoxication laws in different states:

  • Colorado: Public intoxication is not a crime in Colorado. It is also not punishable with civil penalties. Instead, state law provides for patrols who come to the aid of intoxicated people.
  • Indiana: Public intoxication is a class B misdemeanor in Indiana, which carries punishments of up to 180 days in jail, and/or a $1,000 fine. However, as of 2012, state laws changed so that intoxication in public on its own in Indiana is no longer a crime. The defendant must also be putting his or another person’s life in danger, disturbing the peace (or threatening to), or harassing or scaring another person to receive a conviction.
  • Minnesota: Public intoxication is not a crime in Minnesota either. However, cities within the state can create their own public intoxication laws.
  • Virginia: In the state of Virginia, public intoxication is a crime punishable with a fine of up to $250.

Drinking in Public

When it comes to drinking in public, the U.S. has laws on the books with regard to open containers. These are state laws, not federal, so they differ by state. However, the one thing most can agree on is that drinking in public is illegal. The presence of an open container of alcohol serves as evidence that an individual was drinking in public and, as such, this makes the crime easier to prove than actually witnessing someone drinking.

In certain circumstances, drinking in public is okay, like during sporting events or at a concert. However, a person cannot simply walk down the street imbibing alcohol. Some offenders conceal their open containers of alcohol in brown paper bags or other camouflage. However, if an officer is nearby and can detect the consumption of alcohol, he may still arrest or issue a ticket to the offender.

Public Intoxication Examples

Public intoxication is a crime and, as such, an officer can arrest or issue a ticket to someone suspected of drinking in public. Examples of public intoxication typically include the obstruction of the public’s use of sidewalks, parks, stores, and restaurants, along with any other space that is open to the public, while intoxicated. Consider the following as one of these public intoxication examples:

Jessica is at a birthday party at a restaurant, and she is obviously intoxicated. She is being quite loud, slurring her speech, and she reeks of alcohol. When Jessica begins harassing other diners, the manager asks her to leave, but she refuses. Jessica is now ruining the experience for the customers seated around her. The manager finally calls the police, and the police arrest Jessica and escort her out.

In this example of public intoxication, the police charge Jessica with being intoxicated in public, and they have the right to do so. Jessica is aggravating others by overdoing her alcohol consumption in public and ruining everyone else’s good time as a result.

Elements of a Public Intoxication Charge

There are three basic elements of a public intoxication charge that a prosecutor must meet in order to prove the suspect’s guilt. Specifically, the prosecutor must show that the defendant:

  • Was under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
  • Disturbed or brought harm upon another person; and
  • Did these things in a public place.

The prosecution must be able to prove all three of these elements of a public intoxication charge in order to obtain a conviction in a case.

Regarding being under the influence as one of the elements of a public intoxication charge, it may not be enough for the prosecutor to prove the defendant was simply under the influence.

If the defendant displayed an obvious loss of control over himself, or if he posed a threat to others, then he put himself at risk for an arrest and possible conviction. However, in many states, if a defendant simply appears drunk or high, he can receive a conviction.

Penalties for Public Intoxication

The penalties for public intoxication vary by state. Typically, the penalties for public intoxication depend on whether the state considers the behavior to be criminal in nature or a symptom of a medical condition. In most states that consider intoxication in public a crime, the penalties for public intoxication are the same as those for a misdemeanor: fines combined with jail time, probation, or community service.

For example, public intoxication in the state of California is, on its face, a crime prosecuted as a misdemeanor. However, if the defendant was only under the influence of alcohol at the time of his arrest and not illegal drugs, the arresting officer must bring him to a “sobering facility,” or “drunk tank.” Here, the defendant spends up to 72 hours sobering up. If the defendant cooperates, and if all he is guilty of is drunkenness, not having caused harm or a disturbance to others, the prosecution will not press charges.

Public Intoxication Example Involving a Drunk Driver

An example of public intoxication heard in a court of law occurred in Gerardo Aguilera v. The State of Texas (2004). In October of 2002, Kevin Hill was leaving a restaurant in Arlington, Texas when Gerardo Aguilera nearly hit him with his pick-up truck. Hill suspected that Aguilera had been drinking by the way he was driving and called 911. Hill followed Aguilera with the 911 dispatcher still on the line.

They stopped at a home, presumably belonging to Aguilera, who got out of his truck, stumbling and falling. He knocked on the door, a woman answered, and they began arguing. The police arrived about two minutes later. After smelling alcohol on Aguilera, and Aguilera refusing to cooperate for a sobriety test, the arresting officer concluded that Aguilera was too drunk to test him properly and arrested him.

Sentencing and Appeal

Aguilera’s formal charge was driving while intoxicated. He filed a motion to suppress, claiming the police detained him illegally and took statements and video evidence from him in an improper manner.

The court denied his motion and sentenced him according to the plea bargain he had accepted. Aguilera then appealed the court’s decision, arguing that the court improperly denied his motion, and that the police arrested him without a warrant, thereby invalidating anything they collected from him.

Appellate Decision

The Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas heard Aguilera’s appeal and ultimately sided with the lower Court. The Court held that Aguilera’s sentence was proper for the simple fact that he was intoxicated in public – in the presence of a police officer. Specifically, the Court wrote:

“Furthermore, the above facts and reasonable inferences therefrom show that Aguilera presented a danger to himself and to others by nearly causing multiple vehicle accidents, falling down upon exiting his vehicle, and arguing with his wife, possibly leading to future injury to either of them or a third party.

Thus, the knowledge and information available to Officer Kelly at the time of the arrest was such that probable cause existed to arrest Aguilera for public intoxication. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Aguilera’s motion to suppress. We overrule Aguilera’s point.” [Citations omitted]

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Community Service – Volunteer work intended to benefit the community that a court can order an offender to complete in lieu of going to prison.
  • Conviction – The formal declaration in a court of law that someone is guilty of a crime.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Plea Bargain – An agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to some of the charges, or a lesser charge, in exchange for a reduced sentence, or some other concession by the prosecution.
  • Probation – The release of an offender from prison, subject to his agreement to a period of good behavior while under supervision.
  • Prosecutor – A lawyer who conducts a case against a defendant in a criminal trial.