What is Public Intoxication?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 02, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Though she was only a passenger in the car driven by her reportedly drunk boyfriend, Christina Aguilera was arrested and cited for public intoxication earlier this week. The falling pop star's brush with the law has a lot of people wondering about public intoxication and just what constitutes an offense. Here's a quick explainer.

Commonly known as drunk and disorderly conduct, public intoxication is a misdemeanor that punishes those who are visibly drunk in public. Even though prosecutors may present evidence of a defendant's blood alcohol level, how much alcohol a person actually consumed is ultimately irrelevant.

Instead, public intoxication focuses on behavior. Law enforcement looks to a person's demeanor when issuing a citation for public intoxication. Are they acting in a disruptive manner? Are they a danger to themselves or others? This is probably why Christina was arrested -- law enforcement officials indicated that they did not feel she was sober enough to care for herself.

In addition to behavior, the public intoxication or disorderly conduct must happen in, well, public. This is where the law gets a little murky. Jurisdictions vary as to the definition of public, meaning that it may be possible to be cited when on private property if you're in plain view. This is also where the greatest defense to public intoxication can be found. Whether or not you were actually in public is often up for debate.

Public intoxication laws are enforced, but unless you have a glut of priors, a citation rarely ends in more than a slap on the wrist. The primary intent behind these sorts of laws is really to ensure public safety and protect property from drunken frat boys.

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