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When is public intoxication illegal?

In California’s major cities, small towns and rural areas, there are plenty of places to enjoy booze. While you probably know it is against the law to drive a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, being in public after consuming too much beer or liquor may also land you in hot water with law enforcement.

Section 647(f) of the California Penal Code makes public intoxication a misdemeanor offense. Before your next night on the town, you may want to know exactly where officers typically draw the line.

The elements of public intoxication

To secure a conviction for public intoxication, prosecutors must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • A person was willfully under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • The person was in a public place while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • The person was unable to exercise reasonable care for his or her safety or the safety of others or impeded the public’s access to a public space

Public spaces

California law defines “public spaces” quite broadly. Sidewalks, streets, parks and other public venues fall within the definition. Furthermore, prosecutors can probably prove the public place element if you are sitting in a parked car on a public street, standing in the common area of an apartment complex or perhaps even sitting on your front porch.

Your conduct

How you act while under the influence of alcohol or drugs plays an important role in whether officers choose to arrest you for public intoxication. Passing out on the sidewalk or in the street is likely to draw the attention of law enforcement. Of course, if you start fights, cause a dramatic scene or fight with officers, you are apt to find yourself in handcuffs.

Even though it is a misdemeanor offense, public intoxication has meaningful penalties. A public intoxication conviction may also brand you with a criminal record for the rest of your life. Fortunately, you probably have some options for defending yourself or negotiating a plea deal.