Few people are aware that it is possible to be charged and convicted of public drunkenness in Pennsylvania even without consuming a single drop of alcohol. On its face, this makes no sense, as the very name of the crime suggests that the statute criminalizes being drunk in public. Yet names can be deceiving. The full name of the statute is “Public Drunkenness and Similar Conduct,” with the “similar conduct” being intoxication from a controlled substance.
A few years ago, bath salts became popular nationwide including here in Centre County, Pennsylvania. Once bath salts were made illegal, people who acted crazy in public under the influence of this insidious stimulant were charged with public drunkenness. Likewise, people who pass out from heroin overdoses in public restroom are also charged with public drunkenness. We have also seen cases in State College in the past few years where Penn State students have been charged with public drunkenness after ingesting hallucinogenic “research chemicals,” and having very bad reactions. I have never heard of a case in which someone was charged with public drunkenness after consuming only marijuana, but it is not uncommon for people to be charged with public drunkenness after mixing marijuana with stronger drugs like alcohol.
The public drunkenness statute has a misleading name in more than one sense. Not only can one be charged with public drunkenness who is not drunk, it is also not even illegal to be drunk in public. People get drunk in bars and walk home drunk from parties all the time. Not only is this practice perfectly legal if you are over 21, it is also far preferable to drunk driving. In order to be charged with public drunkenness, one has to be intoxicated to a degree that he may endanger himself or other persons or property, or annoy other people in his vicinity. Thus, one must be severely intoxicated to be convicted of public drunkenness, but in a party town like State College, there are plenty of people who get to that point every weekend when Penn State classes are in session.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. If you are charged with a crime like public drunkenness, it is important to discuss your case with a lawyer, especially if you wish to avoid having a conviction record.