Publically Drunk on Your Own Front Porch

The Iowa Supreme Court was tasked with considering whether or not a homeowner could be convicted of Public Drunkenness or Public Intoxication when the person was on the front porch of her own residence. According to an online article, the police were summoned to the residence to investigate a domestic incident. Upon arriving, they encountered a woman on her front porch. They administered a preliminary or portable breath test, also known as a PBT, and the woman’s blood alcohol level was over a .20%. The woman was arrested  for suspicion of a domestic violence assault and also public drunkenness. The assault was later dismissed, but the woman was convicted of public drunkenness, and that led to the appeal and consideration by the state supreme court.

Elements of Pennsylvania Public Drunkenness

The Pennsylvania Superior Court stated in Commonwealth v. Meyer back in 1981 that the Pennsylvania Public Drunkenness law “was enacted to deal with the problem of chronic alcoholics who voluntarily appear on our streets, in our parks, in our neighborhoods, on a routine basis, shouting and cursing at real or imagined foes, causing disruption and annoyance.” The statute, found at 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5505, has two basic elements or factual requirements in order to be convicted: 1) the person must be “manifestly under the influence,” of drugs or alcohol to the extent that it causes a safety hazard to the person or causes a public inconvenience; AND 2) the incident must happen in public. Under the first element, a person can be “drunk” due to the use of alcohol or drugs. Many  people think that Public Drunkenness only prevents the excessive use of alcohol, but the Pennsylvania law also prohibits a person from the over-use of drugs.

Over-inebriation alone is not enough though. Many people call my office and question how they can be charged with Public Drunkenness when no breath tests or field sobriety tests were administered. In order to prove a charge of violating this law, the police are not required to present evidence of an actual blood alcohol level. Instead, the police must present evidence that the person was manifestly under the influence to the extent that the person posed a danger to him or herself or that the person caused a public inconvenience. As a defense attorney near Penn State, I often have clients that are charged because they pose a danger to themselves as they are stumbling into the roadway along Beaver or College Avenues on their drunk walks from apartment parties or the bars downtown back to their apartments or dorms. In the winter months, students are also often cited after they pass out on a bench or forget to wear shoes in the freezing weather.

The second element of Public Drunkenness requires that the incident happened in “public.” There is no definition of the term “public” used in the Public Drunkenness law. The Court in Meyer considered the definition of the word in other Pennsylvania laws and basically stated that “public” allows for access, the right to enter, or make use of, and area by a substantial group of people.

Porch Was Not Public Area for Public Drunkenness Law

The appellate court in Iowa ultimately agreed with the defense and concluded that the homeowner’s actions on her front porch were not conducted in public. No Pennsylvania appellate court decision is directly on point with this issue. Almost every criminal case depends upon the precise circumstances. For example, if a person were passed out on the front porch, I could see a judge ruling that the area was not “public” to justify a Public Drunkenness charge. However, if a person were yelling from the front porch, I could understand that a judge would rule that the inconvenience, while emanating from the porch, was actually going into the public arena and that would allow for a prosecution. In many situations, there is not a precise case that is directly on point, so good lawyers analogize to prior cases and argue that the facts of this particular case do not meet the elements of the offense charged. Regrettably, too many people try to represent themselves or hire inexperienced lawyers and make the argument that anything that happens on private property is not “public.” Knowledge of the law is clearly power in the courtroom, and ignorance is not bliss but instead often loses to a conviction. A conviction of Public Drunkenness is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $500.00 fine for a first offense, a $1,000.00 fine for second and subsequent offenses, and a record that may appear on criminal background searches. A person charged with a criminal offense, even a summary charge like Underage Drinking or Public Drunkenness, should have the case reviewed by an experienced criminal defense attorney.