Breaking it down
Public intoxication and swearing are minor misdemeanor charges in Virginia typically carrying fines of up to $250, but paying the fine without contesting the ticket is an admission of guilt and will result in a criminal conviction on your record.
- Prosecutors have to prove you were intoxicated or swearing in a public place
- You may have a defense against the charge if you can show you weren’t intoxicated, were under the influence of legally prescribed medication, that the place wasn’t public, or that you were in the place involuntarily
- When arrested for public intoxication, a police officer may take you to a detoxification center, but you don’t have to stay there against your will
There’s nothing illegal in Virginia about having a good time that includes a few beers or a couple of glasses of wine, but when your personal party strays into public view it can become a crime. Virginia law makes being drunk in public a misdemeanor offense with a fine of up to $250.
If you’ve had previous drug or alcohol convictions, fines can be greater. Roanoke, for example, will fine you up to $500 on your third or subsequent conviction within city limits within the space of a year under §21-10 of the Roanoke Code of Ordinances.
It may be tempting to just pay the fine since there’s typically no jail time attached, but Virginia considers payment of the fine an admission of guilt, and then those few beers have turned into a criminal record that may follow you for the rest of your life. An experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help you avoid that.
Public Intoxication Defined in Virginia
Intoxication or drunkenness is defined in Virginia Code §4.1-100 as a condition in which someone has consumed enough alcoholic drinks to observably affect his or her manner, disposition, speech, muscular movement, general appearance or behavior.
However, Virginia Code §18.2-388, doesn’t limit intoxication to alcohol use, but also includes within its definition use of drugs or other intoxicants.
When someone shows signs of being intoxicated in a public place, they can be charged with a misdemeanor, and you don’t have to be stumbling down the street to be in public. Virginia Code §4.1-100 defines a public place as any place, building or conveyance where the public has access or is permitted to have access. Public places include:
- Hotel lobbies, corridors or dining rooms
- Highways, streets, or sidewalks
The law excludes from the list of public places rooms in restaurants, hotels, offices, or industrial buildings where private meetings or parties are being held, and private or chartered boats where alcoholic beverages aren’t being sold — although boating under the influence prohibitions apply to the person operating the boat.
Option for Detoxification
When charged with public intoxication, Virginia Code §18.2-388 say the arresting officer may choose to take you to a court-approved detoxification center or jail instead of arresting you. You cannot be detained in such a center involuntarily, although they can hold you until you are sober.
The same Virginia statute that makes it a crime to be drunk in public also makes it a minor misdemeanor to swear in public. This is a separate offense from public drunkenness, so someone who’s had a few beers and stumbles out onto the street or into a hotel corridor shouting slurred profanities can actually be charged with two distinct misdemeanor crimes under Virginia Code §18.2-388, each carrying a $250 maximum fine.
Defenses for Public Intoxication in Virginia
To get a conviction on a public intoxication charge, a prosecutor has to prove two things beyond a reasonable doubt: that you were
- In a public place or exposed to public view
Defenses to the charge essentially come down to successfully challenging one of those two elements.
You might be able to beat the charge if you can provide proof that you were not intoxicated, but since the charge most often is based on a police officer’s subjective observations, a successful defense would come down to a judge finding your word being more credible than the officer’s. A criminal defense lawyer can help you determine what evidence might establish your innocence and how to present that to a judge in a convincing argument.
If your perceived intoxication was the result of legally prescribed medication, that also may be a defense to the charge. A lawyer can help you determine if this defense applies to your circumstances.
You also may be able to argue that the place where you allegedly were intoxicated was not in fact public. This may come hinge upon nuanced legal definitions of public versus private, making help from an experienced criminal defense attorney crucial.
Another option is to show that even though the place was public, you weren’t there voluntarily. For example, if a police officer tells you to some to a public place, you may not be there voluntarily.
Facing Public Intoxication Charges in Virginia?
If you’ve been charged with a public intoxication or swearing in Virginia, the experienced Roanoke alcohol attorneys at Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico can help evaluate the details of your case and your options. For an appointment at our office, call us at (540) 343-9349.