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The Punishment for Public Intoxication (PC 647(f))?

It can be confusing to know what to expect if one is handed a ticket for public intoxication, also known as drunk in public.  Sometimes, the individual is taken to the police station, booked and held overnight to “dry out,” which can be a terrible experience with others similarly held who vomit and may be loud.
Sometimes, but less common, the officer is simply hands the suspect a ticket and quickly leaves, as it more interested in handing out as many of the same ticket as possible in as short an amount of time as possible.  When this does happen, there is a good defense that the person must not have been so intoxicated as to be a danger to himself or herself because the officer allowed the person to continue walking home, i.e.
About This Article Briefly:  The punishment for public intoxication ranges from a reduction diversion, to a reduction to an infraction for disturbing the peace or trespassing, to a conviction for misdemeanor public intoxication, with informal probation to follow.  How the case resolves depends upon the facts of the case, the person’s prior criminal history, especially for similar conduct and the skill of the defense attorney.
Public intoxication is a criminal offense, which is surprising to some of our clients who have told us that in other states it is civil in nature (we think such clients may be incorrect).  It is a crime punishable, in extreme cases, by up to six months in jail and / or a fine of $1,000, plus penalties and assessments.

The prosecution of this offense is often a mistake, we find.  We have noticed over time that many police officers write such tickets if they simply observe a person who is obviously drunk, perhaps walking home from a bar.  Being drunk, we all know, is not a crime unless one is underage or on parole or probation with an order not to consume alcohol.

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To violate Penal Code § 647(f), one must be either so intoxicated that one is unable to care for one’s own safety or the safety of another one is caring for, i.e. a child, OR so intoxicated that one obstructs, interferes or prevents other people (or cars) from using a street, sidewalk, or other passageway such as stairs or even an escalator.

In the case of the first way to violate section 647(f), this can be proven if one admits to drinking heavily and passes out in a restaurant or bar, or loses ones bowels while passed out – or vomits all over oneself.  We have had clients do some things that would have fit in perfectly in “Animal House.”

The second general way to violate section 647(f) is, while admitting to drinking, to sit on a stairway or on a street and heckle others passing by, as drunks often do.  The person may also walk down the middle of a street or try to run up an escalator in the reverse direction, as one of our clients did before being ticketed.

Receiving such a ticket or being taken to the police station is confusing because often a person does not realize the offense is a misdemeanor.  The person expects the police to drop the charge or not file the case at all.  This can be a big mistake, as failing to show in court can result in a bench warrant being issued for one’s arrest.

Please note that in almost all such cases, intoxication is established through an admission by the client to having consumed alcohol.  We find is rare when the police actually ask the client to submit to a breath of blood test to establish intoxication level.  Intoxication, it should be noted, does not necessarily have to be from alcohol – it can also be from any controlled substance, or as the code specifically includes, toluene (paint thinner).

In Los Angeles County, luckily, there is AB 2124, a pilot program for diversion for low level first time offenders such as public intoxication certainly is.  The program, codified at Penal Code §§ 1001.94 to 1001.98 is limited to misdemeanors, as § 647(f) certainly is, and only for people who are not disqualified.  It sunsetted in January 2017.

Disqualifying events include being convicted of any misdemeanor in the last ten years.  This is the most common thing that disqualifies someone.  One is also disqualified if required to register as a sex offender under Penal Code § 290, one is a minor of if the client has ever had a deferred entry of judgment before. 

If a judge were to allow diversion of a public intoxication case, we would expect the terms to include obligations that would be close to the terms of probation we most often see: 16 to 32 hours of community service, attendance at ten to twenty Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings and payment of a booking fee, if applicable.
We often see the same terms offered if the client will accept a conviction on an amended complaint to allege a violation of Penal Code § 415(2), “Disturbing the Peace” by playing loud music, when the client is cooperative with police or when AB 2124 is not available (this program ended in January 2017), for example, when the case is brought outside Los Angeles County.

For more information about the issues in this article, click on the following articles:
  1. What Is Summary Probation?
  2. What Is Community Service, Community Labor and Cal-Trans?
  3. What Is Disturbing the Peace (Penal Code § 415)?
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