When advising clients on legal challenges, there are two components to every piece of advice: the legal and the practical. Advice on avoiding a fine for public intoxication is no exception to this principle. This St. Patty’s Day, here is what you need to know about drunk in public laws in California, no matter where you party.
First, the legal: Public intoxication in California is restricted by California Penal Code §647(f). In order to obtain a conviction, the prosecutor must prove that you were willfully under the influence of drugs, alcohol and/or a controlled substance (including prescription medication) and in a public place. While this seems broad, there are a number of limitations to the enforcement of this provision that you can leverage to defeat your charge or reduce your penalties.
It is worth noting first that the law requires the intoxication to be willful. This means that if one were drugged against their will, such as by ingesting a date rape drug, they cannot be convicted under §647(f). Also, the law requires that you be in a public place. This includes public property (sidewalks, streets, parks) and private property open to the general public (such as nightclubs, malls and airports). This also means that if police discover you in a private place, such as your home, and bring you into a public place (the sidewalk directly outside) there can be no conviction under §647(f).
Furthermore, there are constitutional requirements that limit enforcement. Under the Fourth Amendment, the police need reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts to stop you. They can’t just pull you off the street and question you about alcohol usage. They need to be able to testify that you were stumbling or causing a disturbance in a manner that made you appear intoxicated in order to stop and test you. Once they’ve stopped you, they need probable cause to issue a citation and/or arrest you. They usually accomplish this by performing a field sobriety test. If any of these defenses or situations applies to you, be sure to raise them. The mere act of raising them, if the prosecutor finds them to be credible, is likely to result in dismissal. The DA’s office and the police do not have the resources to be fighting questionable §647(f) cases.