Charges for public intoxication or disorderly conduct in SC are often referred to as “public drunkenness,” although disorderly conduct charges cover a much broader range of conduct than being drunk in public. 

What’s the difference between these charges, what type of conduct will get you charged with them, and what are some of the more common defenses to public intoxication and disorderly conduct? 

Charges for Public Intoxication in SC

Looking at the websites and blog posts of some other SC attorneys, I see several that say it is not a crime to be drunk in public – they are wrong. For example, one article published by NOLO and written by an employment attorney says, “[s]imply being drunk is not enough to support a conviction of public disorderly conduct under South Carolina law—there is no law in the state against intoxication itself.”

Wait, what? 

It is true that there is no crime that is labeled “public intoxication” in the SC Code, but: 

1) There are municipal offenses across the state that are titled “public intoxication,” including in Myrtle Beach, SC, and people are arrested, convicted, and sentenced for public intoxication every day in SC. 

2) SC’s disorderly conduct statute expressly makes it a crime to be “grossly intoxicated” in any public place, this portion of the statute has been upheld by the SC Supreme Court, and people are charged with being drunk in public under this statute every day. 

“Public intoxication,” for example, is covered under Myrtle Beach municipal code section 14-66, “Public Intoxication or Impairment,” which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person to be in an intoxicated or impaired condition in any public place in the city.” 

Public Intoxication: What is an “Intoxicated or Impaired Condition?”

14-66 defines “intoxicated or impaired condition” as:

…a situation or circumstance evidencing material diminishment of one’s cognitive, emotional, mental or physical faculties, or loss of control of such faculties due to the ingestion of alcohol or other substances, in such a manner as to threaten or impede the safety of that person or another person, or of the public, or to bring disorder to the public, or to menace the public tranquility, or to deter by the person’s presence the public’s reasonable enjoyment of a public place.

Public Intoxication: What is a “Public Place?”

14-66 defines “public place” as:

…any street, alley, park, sidewalk, public building and premises, any place of business during the time in which it is open to the public or frequented by the public or any portion thereof, and any other place or portion thereof that may be apprehended by the public through the senses of hearing and sight, or to which the public has access.

How is Public Intoxication Different than Disorderly Conduct?

Drunk in public or public intoxication charges are municipal (city) offenses. They are defined by each city’s municipal code, and they can only be charged in the city court – if you are outside of city limits, you cannot be charged with public intoxication anywhere in SC, although you may be charged with disorderly conduct. 

Disorderly conduct charges are a state-law offense. It is defined in SC Code Section 16-17-530. It makes it a crime to be drunk in public (like the municipal offense), but it also covers 1) “disorderly or boisterous” conduct, 2) use of profanity in a public place, and 3) discharging a firearm near any public road while drunk (or while pretending to be drunk):

A person who is: (1) found on any highway or at any public place or public gathering in a grossly intoxicated condition or otherwise conducts himself in a disorderly or boisterous manner; (2) uses obscene or profane language on any highway or at any public place or gathering or in hearing distance of any schoolhouse or church; or (3) while under the influence or feigning to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor, without just cause or excuse, discharges any gun, pistol, or other firearm while upon or within fifty yards of any public road or highway, except upon his own premises, is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, must be fined not more than one hundred dollars or be imprisoned for not more than thirty days.

You can be charged with disorderly conduct for being “grossly intoxicated” in public anywhere in the state of SC, or you can be charged with the municipal offense of public intoxication for being “intoxicated or impaired” in any public place within city limits. 

Defenses to Public Intoxication or Disorderly Conduct Charges

If you are charged with public intoxication, public drunkenness, or disorderly conduct based on gross intoxication in public, the most obvious defenses are 1) you were not drunk, or 2) you were not in public. 

Not in Public

It doesn’t matter how intoxicated you are if you are not in public. If you are on your own property, in your home, in a friend’s home, or inside your hotel room, for example, you are not “in public” and you cannot be convicted of “public intoxication,” “drunk in public,” or disorderly conduct that is based on intoxication. 

Not Intoxicated

How does the officer know that you are grossly intoxicated? 

While you may appear intoxicated to the officer, appearances can be deceiving. Unless the officer gave you a breathalyzer test (I have never seen them do it unless the person is charged with a DUI offense), they could be mistaken. 

People have been charged with public intoxication or disorderly conduct when:

  • They have a medical condition like diabetes that was causing impairment,
  • They have a disability or mental impairment that the officer did not recognize,
  • They were upset or angry but not intoxicated, or
  • They were involuntarily intoxicated by prescription medications with unanticipated side effects. 

Disorderly Conduct Defenses

If you are charged with “public drunk” under the disorderly conduct statute, the same defenses will apply as if you were charged with the municipal offense of public intoxication. 

If you are charged under the other provisions of the disorderly conduct statute, however, there may be additional defenses available, including:

  • The boisterous, disorderly, or profane conduct was not within view or hearing of the public, or
  • Your conduct was protected under the First Amendment. 

The First Amendment protects speech, whether it is directed at police officers, government officials, or ordinary citizens. You cannot be arrested and convicted for cursing, arguing, criticizing, or otherwise expressing yourself, unless your conduct and language rise to the level of “fighting words,” which is defined in detail in SC and US Supreme Court cases. 

Although some conduct – cursing at a police officer, for example – is protected under the First Amendment, you can still be convicted of disorderly conduct if you were also grossly intoxicated or if there was other criminal conduct that went beyond the First Amendment’s protections. For example:

  • In State v. Pittman, the defendant’s conduct in yelling and cursing at police officers was protected under the First Amendment, but the SC Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction for disorderly conduct because he was also grossly intoxicated in the passenger seat of a vehicle, and 
  • In In re Jeremiah W., the defendant’s conduct in yelling and cursing at officers was protected and his conviction for disorderly conduct was reversed by the SC Supreme Court, but his conviction for threatening a public official was affirmed because it was a separate and distinct offense committed after he was placed into the patrol car. Threats against a police officer are not protected by the First Amendment. 

Pre-Trial Diversion Programs for Alcohol Offenses

Even in the worst of cases, pretrial diversion may be an option for many people who are charged with public drunk, public intoxication, or disorderly conduct. You may be eligible for programs that involve some community service and counseling followed by the dismissal and expungement of your charges, including:

  • AEP: Alcohol Education Program,
  • PTI: Pre-Trial Intervention, or
  • A Conditional Discharge under the disorderly conduct statute. 

Criminal Defense Lawyers in Myrtle Beach, SC

If you are charged with public drunk, public intoxication, or disorderly conduct in SC, your Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyer at Coastal Law will work hard to get your case dismissed or to get an acquittal at trial while preserving any evidence that you may need for a civil rights lawsuit against the officer or police department.

Call Coastal Law now at (843) 488-5000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation about your case.

Ready to Speak with an Attorney?

Contact Coastal Law to discuss your situation.

Get in Touch

20 Years Representing Locals & Tourists
+ +