Public Intoxication: What If You're Not Drunk?

By Andrew Lu on January 29, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Super Bowl and Mardi Gras are right around the corner, so now may be the perfect time to talk about public intoxication and its legal caveats -- for example, getting arrested for being drunk in public, even when you're not drunk.

That's right, in certain jurisdictions, you can be charged with public intoxication even if you are not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. All it takes for a police officer to arrest you is if you simply appear drunk in a public place.

So how does this work?

Public intoxication is a crime governed by state and local laws. Each jurisdiction has its own specific laws, so the elements of public intoxication in New Orleans may differ from public intoxication in Los Angeles or New York City.

While some jurisdictions require that someone both appear to be drunk and actually be drunk in public in order to charge that person with the crime, some states have less stringent requirements. Many states only require that an individual appear to be drunk or high in order to charge that person with the crime.

So presumably, you could be charged with public intoxication even if you didn't have a drink. For example, if you stumble out of a bar with your friends and act unruly from the natural "high" of celebrating a promotion or raise, you could potentially be charged with public intoxication, even if you didn't take a sip of alcohol.

Of course, if there is no blood test proving that you are actually drunk, it would be up to a judgment call by the officer as to whether or not you appeared drunk. But that judgment call can later be challenged in court.

If you are charged with public intoxication and believe that you have been wrongly charged -- because you were not drunk, or you were not on public property -- you may want to talk to a criminal attorney to figure out your best defense strategy. Depending upon where you live, actual intoxication may not be a necessary element of the offense.

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