If you have been arrested for PC 647(f) public intoxication (“drunk in public”) in Los Angeles or Orange County, there are some very important things you need to know about what is up ahead and how this offense can affect your life.
To contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Drunk in Public offenses, click here.
But first…something everyone should know…
WARNING: Serious red flag on background checks!!!
Although a low-level criminal misdemeanor offense, the real life results it carries can have far-reaching consequences to your professional, personal, and private life.
Most employers will be alarmed to see this kind of charge on a background check because it makes countless assumptions about the applicant in terms of their lifestyle, choices, and ability to govern their life responsibly.
Therefore, every person who commits this offense must be aware of the harmful collateral consequences it will cause to work, family, housing, and the social stigma associated with it.
Some Background History of California Penal Code Section 647
The California Penal Code 647(f) is a statute that makes it a crime to be in a public place while “under the influence of alcohol or any drug, and unable to exercise care for one’s own safety or the safety of others.” It is also referred to as a “drunk in public” or “public intoxication” charge.
This statute has been in place since the 1940s and is one of the most commonly charged misdemeanors in California.
Why Drunk in public was made a crime
The goal of this law was to reduce public disturbances and to protect the public from the dangers of inebriated individuals. Over the years, the courts have interpreted the law to include both alcohol and drug intoxication, although the majority of cases involve the former.
In the early years, the law was used primarily to address public disturbances caused by people who were visibly intoxicated in public places.
These cases usually involved individuals who were very loud and boisterous in their behavior, and often required police involvement.
In the case of People v. Lee 1 Cal. 3d 732 (Cal. 1977), the defendant was charged with public intoxication after he was found passed out in a public park. The court found that the defendant was not only under the influence of an alcoholic beverage but also unable to care for his own safety or the safety of others, and thus he was convicted of public intoxication. This case set the precedent for courts to find a person guilty of public intoxication even if they are not engaging in any disruptive behavior.
In the case of People v. Corcoran 146 Cal. App. 3d Supp. 1 (1982), the defendant was charged with public intoxication after he was found passed out in a public park. In this case, the court found that the defendant was not only under the influence of alcohol but also unable to care for his own safety or the safety of others, and thus he was convicted of public intoxication. However, the court also found that the defendant’s behavior did not rise to the level of disturbing the peace or endangering the public, and thus his sentence was reduced to a misdemeanor.
More recently, in the case of McDonald v. County of Sonoma (N.D.Cal. 2020), a man was detained by the county sheriff after he said he consumed intoxicating beverages at an earlier time and the deputy smelled and observed his behavior being consistent with the offense. After initiating a civil rights claim against the agency, it was held that the deputy had reasonable suspicion to detain the man, thus negating the unlawful arrest allegation.
These cases above also demonstrate that the law should not be used to punish individuals who are not posing a threat to public safety.
Instead, the law should be used to prevent public disturbances and to protect the public from the dangers of inebriation.
As a result, the law has been interpreted broadly to include both traditional beverages and drug intoxication, and to provide individuals with the opportunity to receive a reduced sentence if their behavior does not involve any threat to public safety.
Drunk in Public
How You Get Charged with Public Intoxication
Before getting charged, a person is typically arrested and spends a few hours at a police station. Eventually, a district attorney’s office files charges–which is a different legal standard.
At it’s core, a person commits a violation if they cannot care for oneself in a public place or who interferes with or obstructs or prevents the free use of a sidewalk or other public street or public way of another person while intoxicated.
What is “Public” and Why does it matter?
The concept of “public place” in the law includes any place that is open to the public or where the public has access, such as a public street, sidewalk, park, or store. In other words, the person can be found in any public setting. So the “public way” can take countless forms.
A person can be arrested for being intoxicated in a public place in dozens of different scenarios in California, including: (a) if they are found to be in possession of an open container of an alcoholic beverage, (b) if they are found to be drinking in a public place, (c) if they are found to be intoxicated in a public place, or (d) if they are found to be causing a public disturbance.
Therefore, any place that is open to the public, such as a park/alley/street sidewalk/street corner (all of which are a public place), will be sufficient to detain a person for arrest. It should therefore be pretty obvious that someone who is passed out on a sidewalk or other public way could be arrested.
Intoxicated by Liquor
Being under the influence of intoxicating liquor by itself is not illegal.
After all, why else would liquor be sold in stores? Intoxicating beverages are not always laying around to be found in any public setting.
As stated earlier, the public policy behind making it an arrestable offense is that someone who is in a public place and under the influence of intoxicating liquor exposes them and others to increased danger.
Therefore, intoxication from the influence of an alcoholic beverage presumably leads to this act being enforced by local authorities (aka: peace officers).
It should also be noted that some persons may become intoxicated without knowing what they had ingested. Therefore, it would have to be proven that a person found guilty of disorderly conduct will have to have been willfully under the influence.
Intoxicated by a Drug in Public
In the same way as being intoxicated in public with alcohol, it is also illegal in California to be intoxicated by a drug in public because it is a public health and safety issue. Intoxication by a drug can lead to impaired judgment and decision-making, which can put people at risk for accidents and injuries. Therefore, alcohol, drugs, or any combination will do.
There is no limitation on the type of drug/controlled substance involved. Liquor, drug, or toluene all qualify. A drug (or toluene) interferes with responsible decision making. Therefore, a drug controlled substance (toluene for example) can increase a person’s bad decision to walk into traffic and cause serious injury.
Property damage can also result from this kind of behavior–even if it was done without any intent.
So, to be relevant in California penal code section 647 f, an intoxicating liquor, drug (controlled substance) or toluene (or any combination of any intoxicating liquor any drug) will qualify for an arrest.
All that matters is that the person exhibited the objective signs of being under the influence.
Combination of any intoxicating liquor and drug controlled substance (toluene)
One important note should be mentioned: The combination of (any) liquor (any) drug controlled substance is known to magnify intoxication in people. These means that it will not just add to the feeling of inebriation. Instead, it will multiple the effects.
So by being under the influence of an intoxicating liquor drug (or toluene) or any combination of any intoxicating substance will aggravate the evidence supporting the offense.
Specific Charges Related to Toluene
Some clients ask why toluene fits into this section since the effects do not linger in the ways that drugs or alcoholic beverages do. It is true, that toluene in a condition by itself, may not render sufficient evidence for a detention or arrest.
However, every person who commits a violation of this section by using toluene or any combination of substances can be prosecuted because this is likely to result in objective symptoms of intoxication.
It is well known that any kind of alcoholic beverage, illegal drug, or toluene interferes with gross motor skills and a person’s overall ability to make responsible or safe decisions when enough is ingested. So, toluene in a condition of isolation, can arguably fit that definition.
However, toluene by itself would not place under the influence a person long enough to establish (i) ones inability to care for oneself or (ii) impede the free use of a public way.
On the other hand, if a person were under the influence of toluene and somehow prevents the free use of another person from accessing a public way, it can be argued that for that moment (documented by an angry Samaritan), a possible violation of drunk in public occurred.
Meaning of “Intoxicated” under Penal Code 647 f PC
Many clients are shocked to learn that no breathalyzers or drug tests are ever involved in a California penal code section 647 f arrest. This is hard for people to believe given the title of the charge.
Intoxication as an Observable Act
Intoxication is a subjective issue for law enforcement.
California Penal code section 647 f allows peace officers to simply observe someone if they are under the influence of intoxicating liquor drug, or combination of any intoxicating substances.
Therefore, liquor, any drug controlled substance (toluene), or any combination of any intoxicating substances are all presumed to cause intoxication. But without forensic testing, how can someone be evaluated or arrested for it?
Officers are trained by DRE (Drug Recognition Experts) as early as their academy training. They are taught to look for physiological and other observable factors when interacting with someone during their patrol.
Observations such as: slurred speech, unsteady gait, lack of coordination, and the inability to orient oneself in the circumstances can all contribute to the officer’s evaluation for a Penal Code 647 f offense.
The Defense of “Intoxication” to Public Intoxication
What may sound like a silly suggestion, some litigants have argued that one cannot be guilty of disorderly conduct if their own intoxication prevented them from knowing their own intoxication.
This argument has some plausibility in that alcohol, drugs, and their combination prevents one from having conscious control over their behavior.
At what exact point of a person’s ingestion of an intoxicating liquor, any drug controlled substance (toluene), or combination would make them responsible for causing themselves to be drunk in public?
The case of People v. Perez (64 Cal.App.3d 297, 1976) may provide some direction.
In Perez, the court reasoned that “whether a person under the influence of intoxicating liquor (any drug) comes into a public place of his or her own volition is without consequence in determining whether that person has violated this section.”
Therefore, since liquor, any drug controlled substance (and their combination) will affect ones perceptions, starting in a public place in order to become intoxicated can be enforced.
Similarly, ingesting an intoxicating liquor any drug before finding oneself in a public place will not negate the right of police officers to make an arrest (regardless of the circumstances of finding yourself in a public place).
In other words: the party may have started in the hotel room, where it’s not open and accessible like a street sidewalk. But every person inebriated enough can find themselves in the open and tragically influence the safety of others or place under the influence others, or by reason unknown to anyone be unable to exercise care when attempting the use of any street.
If a client wishes to go to trial, there will be evidentiary burdens to determine and eventually sentence a defendant charged with 647 f who is found guilty.
Proving Beyond a Reasonable Doubt for a Drunk in Public Subdivision (f) Violation
Like all public offenses, to be convicted of a drunk in public charge, the prosecution must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. It helps to understand what this legal standard actually means.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that would leave the fact finder (jury or judge) with an abiding conviction that the charges are true. “Abiding” means long-lasting.
As stated above, a prosecutor must prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time of arrest, the defendant exhibited: (1) intoxication and (2) the inability to care for oneself or others, or (3) the disorderly conduct of the defendant obstructs or prevents others from using public ways.
Considering what a hypothetical jury would hear in a trial, it would not be difficult to establish evidence of: (i) how someone may have been denied the use of any street sidewalk or other public way, (ii) how someone interferes with or obstructs others, and (iii) the person’s own intoxication was not a defense.
After a conviction, may courts will typically sentence the same day (if by plea) or one month later (if by jury). At sentencing, the prosecutor must prove the following to impose some number of months in county jail: (A) the defendant may have an extensive criminal record, (B) that the crime charged was not the first, (C) the nature of the offense was truly some disorderly conduct to the community, (D) and that jail would be an appropriate result for the crime prosecuted.
A defendant charged with Subdivision f who is found guilty will be sentenced by a judge. Except as provided by law, judges may enhance the sentence of a defendant if under the following acts is guilty of drunk in public: (prior criminal record, additional charges, enhancements, prior strike offenses, or circumstances of aggravation).
A conviction for a drunk in public offense could potentially carry up to 6 months in county jail.
Keep in mind that this is the maximum sentence. Thus, unless the crime involves others or by reason under public policy (except as provided by statute) an actual sentence of 6 months is unlikely. A good criminal defense strategy should limit the punishment greatly.
Background Checks that Show Penal Code 647
Unfortunately, background checks that reveal prior criminal history for Penal Code 647 f can be disastrous for a number of reasons.
a) Assumes a booking or arrest occurred (which is not good)
The first bit of knowledge that can be derived from the arrest is that at least some time was spent in jail. Whether things started out as someone simply disturbing the peace, the arrest eventually ended in a local or county jail. For some, this is difficult to explain to a potential employer.
Shockingly, there could be another potentially harmful result of a typical drunk in public arrest.
The background check may erroneously misrepresent the crime record involved. Which could include assumptions that the applicant in the following acts is guilty of (seebelow).
b) Section 647 – The Alarming List of Charges Unrelated to being Drunk in Public.
Code section 647 includes several categories of crime beyond drunk in public, namely: solicitation for prostitution, solicitation for prostitution with a minor, loitering, solicitation for lewd or lascivious acts, peeping, unlawfully recording others in private, nude, or sexual circumstances, and distribution of images depicting unlawful or private sexual material.
With some background checks, not all minute details are included, and the character destroying charges above may unfortunately fall on the radar of the employer reading the criminal record report.
Therefore, the report must include the (f) in the subdivision to accurately reflect what truly happened.
Nevertheless, few would want the public to know of how their intoxication became so big that they were unable to exercise care. This could be disastrous for finding new employment.
Having a good defense from the beginning can avoid having to explain this to your new employer.
Avoiding jail is one thing. Avoiding a conviction for the crime of being drunk in public is far more attractive.
Removing a Criminal Record that Shows Penal Code Section 647 f PC
Many misdemeanors that can be expunged must prove the following: (public service, community service, sobriety, rehabilitation, and compliance with court orders). Cases such as DUI’s and Domestic Violence have this added step before relief can be granted.
No Rehabilitation Requirement for Drunk in public Charges
Bart Kaspero is an experienced criminal defense and regulatory attorney who has focused on using technology and the law in bringing privacy to criminal records.
His research has been published in several legal journals and his unique background has helped a broad spectrum of clients.
He has provided legal training to lawyers across the US on how to navigate complex criminal record legislation and how to effectively provide privacy to those with past arrests, charges, and convictions.
His innovative methods have earned him a top position of authority on the subject of criminal record privacy as well as trust within the criminal data supply chain.
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