Public Intoxication – Penal Code 647(f)

California’s law governing public intoxication or public drunkenness is Penal Code 647 (f).

According to the penal code, simply being drunk while out in public is not a crime. However, it becomes a crime when the intoxicated person is unable to exercise care for his or her safety and/or the safety of others or if he or she obstructs others from using public sidewalks and streets. This means that an individual could very well be drunk in public but not guilty of an offense if he or she is not found to be acting carelessly or interfering on public walkways. Police may want to make drunk people believe they are in violation of Penal Code 647 (f) at times, even when they are not, so it is important for people to understand their rights under California law.

The following are two examples of actions that could lead to public intoxication (drunk in public) charges in accordance with Penal Code 647 (f):

✦A woman is drunk in a bar. After the bartender refuses to serve the woman another drink, she begins to threaten the bartender physically, even throwing her barstool at and just missing the bartender.

✦ An intoxicated man is sitting in the middle of a busy intersection, making fun of people as they pass by, especially after they suggest he move to somewhere safer.1

The penalties for public intoxication

Being found intoxicated in public and in violation of Penal Code 647 (f) is a misdemeanor offense in California. The offense is punishable up to six months in county jail and/or with a fine up to $1,000, in accordance with California Penal Code 19. It is important to note, a conviction of public drunkenness goes on a person’s permanent criminal record. This means the record is viewable by licensing agencies and possible employers. The offense is put on a person’s criminal record even if a judge decides to sentence the defendant to probation instead of jail time.

Additionally, if a person is convicted of being drunk in public three times within a 12-month period, he or she faces at least 90 days in county jail and possibly at least 60 days in an alcohol or drug treatment program.

If facing a public intoxication charge, it is beneficial to obtain legal defense to fight the charges at hand. 2

Deferred Entry of Judgment

It someone is arrested for being found under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, a good California criminal defense attorney may be able to negotiate a drug diversion program, known as deferred entry of judgment. Even if someone is guilty of Penal Code 647 (f), a drug diversion program still could be an option, if a judge agrees it would be of benefit to the offender. Under the deferred entry of judgment, the person agrees to perform community service work and attend a drug treatment program. Upon successfully completing the program requirements, the case can be dismissed and a criminal record would not reflect the charge.

Legal defenses for being drunk in public

A California criminal defense attorney, who is skilled with fighting charges related to Penal Code 647 (f), often is able to get the charge or charges reduced or dismissed for his or her client. There actually are numerous legal defenses that can be used in court on a defendant’s behalf when it comes to being drunk in public.

Some of these defenses include:

  • The defendant was not actually intoxicated in a public place, or
  • There is insufficient evidence that the defendant really was drunk in the first place, and/or
  • The defendant’s civil rights were violated when law enforcement investigated the situation.

A prosecutor must prove that three elements were true of the defendant for a conviction to result. The elements of drunk in public/public intoxication under Penal Code 647 (f)  are:

  1. The defendant “willfully” was under the influence of alcohol, drugs or a controlled substance;
  2. The defendant was in a “public place” while under the influence, and
  1.   He or she either was unable to exercise care for their own safety or the safety of others and/or he or she was obstructing or preventing the use of a street sidewalk or public walkway.

“Willfully” means the person deliberately was intoxicated and voluntarily consumed alcohol and/or drugs. If the ingestion was accidental, the individual is not guilty of public intoxication under California Penal Code 647 (f).

According to Penal Code 647 (f), a “public place” is an area outside a home in which a stranger is free to be, as well. Examples of a public place include a bar and other entertainment venues; a convenient store or other shop; and streets and sidewalks. If the person is in a car but on a public street, in the hallway of an apartment building, or in someone else’s front yard, he or she also could be found guilty of being intoxicated in a public place.

Furthermore, someone is charged with being drunk in a public place when he or she is a safety risk to him or herself or to others. For example, if a young man is hanging outside of a nightclub, clearly intoxicated, and insists on hanging out in the middle of the street to wait for his ride, his safety is in danger. This individual could be found guilty of public intoxication in California.

In addition to endangering safety, blocking or interfering with other people’s use of roads or public walkways while drunk in public is a legitimate charge under Penal Code 647 (f). For example, a woman uses drugs in the park with others. When the others leave, she decides to just lie on a sidewalk, forcing people to step in the street to walk around her. She could be arrested and then found guilty of public intoxication. 3

Legal References:

1 California Penal Code 647(f)

2  California Penal Code 19 PC

3 California Penal Code 647(f)