What Does it Actually Mean to Be Publicly Intoxicated?

By Jed McKeehan

So you may have heard the term, “public intoxication.” As many bars and restaurants there are in the world, it can be surprising that its actually a crime to be intoxicated in a public place. I thought these places were trying to make me intoxicated!
Unfortunately, it is a crime, a Class C misdemeanor, which is the lowest level of crime you can commit in Tennessee and still potentially face jail time. The maximum sentence for committing such a crime is 30 days in jail and most individuals never serve near that amount of time if they are arrested for public intoxication.
The Tennessee public intoxication law can be found at Tennessee Code Annotated 39-17-310, and it states:
(a) A person commits the offense of public intoxication who appears in a public place under the influence of a controlled substance, controlled substance analogue or any other intoxicating substance to the degree that:
(1) The offender may be endangered;
(2) There is endangerment to other persons or property; or
(3) The offender unreasonably annoys people in the vicinity.
(b) A violation of this section is a Class C misdemeanor.
That’s the entirety of the law on public intoxication in Tennessee. So when I read this law, a few things jump out at me.
First, you don’t even have to be drunk driving to be arrested for being drunk. If you are drunk and in a public place, you have met the first criterion for possibly being arrested for public intoxication.
That’s why its important to know that restaurants and bars are not actually public places. They are private businesses. While they may usually be open to the public, they are allowed to refuse to serve individuals, making them private places. So you cannot get arrested for public intoxication if you are in a private business, and obviously you cannot get arrested while in a private residence.
However, once you walk out on the street, or are at a public park, or any other place owned by a government entity, you are fair game.
Second, you don’t have to be under the influence of alcohol only. If you are under the influence of narcotics of some kind, the police can arrest you for public intoxication.
Finally, you can read for yourself what a person has to be doing to violate the public intoxication law. Unreasonably annoying people in the vicinity?!?!?! That seems pretty vague. Drunk people annoy me all of the time, can I get them arrested?
The language here is very broad, “endangering themselves,” “endangering others,” those are broad terms that could mean almost anything and the legislators may have designed it that way to allow the police to have broad abilities to arrest individuals.
The lesson here is, if you are enjoying any kind of intoxicant, minimize your time in public places.

Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties. He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit attorney-knoxville.com for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login