In the State of California, it's a crime to be intoxicated in a public place to the point that you either obstruct a public pathway or are so impaired that you cannot see to your own safety, defined under Penal Code 647(f) PC.
The crime of public intoxication, also known as "drunk in public," falls into the category of several crimes identified as "disorderly conduct" offenses, per Penal Code 647. If you are charged with being drunk in public, you face a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to 6 months in jail.
Simply put, PC 647(f) makes public intoxication a crime. You violate this law when you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, in a public place, to the point of being unable to care for your safety or that of others.
PC 647 says, “Except as provided in paragraph (5) of subdivision (b) and subdivision (k), every person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor….”
“(f) Who is found in any public place under the influence of intoxicating liquor, any drug, controlled substance, toluene, or any combination of any intoxicating liquor, drug, controlled substance, or toluene, in a condition that they are unable to exercise care for their own safety or the safety of others, or by reason of being under the influence of intoxicating liquor, any drug, controlled substance, toluene, or any combination of any intoxicating liquor, drug, or toluene, interferes with or obstructs or prevents the free use of any street, sidewalk, or other public way.”
To convict you of violating PC 647(f) drunk in public law, the prosecutor must prove all the elements of the crime discussed below. Let's review this state-level law below.
What Is Considered Public Intoxication?
Under California law, you are considered "intoxicated" if you are under the influence of any of the following:
- Alcohol (read in the law as "intoxicating liquor");
- Any drug or controlled substance, whether legal or illegal, over-the-counter or prescription;
- Toluene, such as the solvent found in paint thinners and other substances associated with "huffing;"
- Any combination of the above.
Also, for purposes of this law, a "public place" is any place accessible to the public, such as any of the following:
- open street;
- shopping mall;
- city park;
- grocery store;
- a car parked on a public street; or
- other places of business.
Under PC 647(f), prosecutors must establish the following vital facts to obtain a conviction of public intoxication:
- You were willfully intoxicated;
- You were in a public place while intoxicated; AND
- You were unable to care for your safety or that of others as a result of the intoxication; OR
- You were obstructing a public road, sidewalk, or other walkway due to intoxication.
Note that under this definition, the state of being visibly drunk or high in public is not in itself a crime.
It's only a crime if you're impaired to the point that you can't protect yourself or others, a very subjective and debatable issue, or you're blocking a public way.
If your intoxication merely results in loud or disruptive public behavior, for example, you might be charged with other crimes, such as disturbing the peace, but not necessarily public drunkenness.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Timothy has had too much to drink at a local bar, and the bartender cuts him off.
Angered, Timothy tries to take a swing at the bartender, misses, loses his balance, and hurtles across the room as he falls, knocking over tables and chairs as a result.
Timothy may be charged under PC 647(f) because he's publicly intoxicated to the point of being a danger to his safety and to others.
EXAMPLE 2: Janine consumes ecstasy at a rave and passes out on the sidewalk while walking home. She can be charged with public intoxication because she's impaired to the point of obstructing foot traffic.
EXAMPLE 3: Jerry consumes a fifth of bourbon on his backyard patio, loses consciousness by the pool, and falls in. His girlfriend pulls him out and calls 911. While Jerry is impaired to endangering his safety, he won't be charged under PC 647(f) because he was not in public when it happened.
What Are the Related Crimes?
Several California crimes are related to Penal Code 647(f) public intoxication, such as the following:
- Penal Code 415 PC – disturbing the peace;
- Penal Code 303a PC – loitering to solicit the purchase of alcohol;
- Vehicle Code 23152 VC – driving under the influence;
- Health and Safety Code 11550 HS – under the influence of drugs.
What Are the Penalties for PC 647(f)?
Public intoxication is a misdemeanor offense. If you are convicted under PC 647(f), you may face up to the following:
- Six months in jail; and
- $1000 in fines.
Considering the facts of the case, the presiding judge has the latitude to impose summary probation instead of jail time.
What Are the Defenses for PC 647(f)?
Most strategies used by a California criminal defense lawyer against charges of public intoxication are intended to cast doubt or disprove one of the key elements of the crime, discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you were involuntarily intoxicated. To be convicted of public intoxication, prosecutors must show you willfully became intoxicated.
Your attorney may be able to argue, for example, that you accidentally became impaired by consuming alcohol along with medications you were taking or that someone slipped an intoxicating agent into your drink when you weren't looking.
Perhaps we can argue that you remained in control of your safety. The element of being unable to "exercise care for your safety" is an ambiguous, undefined term that is decided by a judge or jury based on the case's facts. Your attorney may argue that while you may have been visibly intoxicated, you never posed a risk to yourself or others.
Perhaps we can argue that you were not in a public place. For example, maybe you were at a party not open to the public.
Perhaps we can argue that you were not interfering with a public street or walkway. For example, your attorney may argue that you were passed out beside a building or a dumpster and did not obstruct traffic flow.
If you were charged with being drunk in public, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor for a favorable resolution. You can contact us by phone or by using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.