Show of hands: How many of you know the difference between being publicly intoxicated and being a pedestrian under the influence?
If you had to pause to scratch your head, or were wondering why the second charge even exists in law, you aren’t alone.
“Really there’s a distinct difference between the two (charges),” said Sam Sanders, who has experience both defending those charges as a private attorney and pressing them as a prosecutor for Whitfield County Magistrate Court.
Sanders said even law officers confuse the two charges frequently enough that courts sometimes throw out the allegations because a suspect was charged with the wrong offense.
Being a pedestrian under the influence, sometimes referred to as PUI, has to do with being near a roadway, perhaps walking along a sidewalk or “straying into lanes of traffic in a manner that would put you in danger,” said Dalton Police Department spokesman Bruce Frazier. Public drunkenness or intoxication, he said, “is more akin to disorderly conduct stemming from your intoxication.”
Put another way, public drunkenness is a more general charge that requires “being or appearing in an intoxicated condition,” “that the condition be manifest some way — not just that you have a high BAC (blood alcohol content), but that you’re doing something to show it — boisterous, etc.” and “that you’re in a public place or at a private home that is not yours,” said District Attorney Bert Poston.
PUI is more specific, Poston said, in that it requires that “you be under the influence to a degree that renders you a hazard” and “that you’re in that condition on a public roadway.”
“So you could be guilty of both if you are drunk and boisterous in the road, or you could be just drunk in the road, but not boisterous, or you could be drunk and boisterous in a public place, just not a road,” Poston said.
“Whether one or the other or both is charged just depends on the facts of the case,” Poston said.
Public drunkenness and PUI, both misdemeanors, don’t appear to be charges that law enforcement officers find themselves combating as much as, say, possession of marijuana, for which someone is charged and arrested nearly everyday, jail records show.
In Whitfield County Superior Court in 2013, there were 54 cases of alleged public intoxication and just eight cases of alleged PUI, records show. Information on the number of cases that come through Whitfield County Magistrate Court and Dalton Municipal Court wasn’t immediately available.
Under the law, being a pedestrian under the influence carries a lesser maximum sentence than being publicly drunk. A public drunkenness charge, by the way, covers intoxication not just for alcohol consumption but also for drug use.
In Georgia, most misdemeanor charges can carry up to a year in jail, although Sanders said few if any judges sentence those convicted of PUI or public intoxication to actual jail time rather than just time on probation. State law allows a fine of up to $1,000 for public intoxication but only up to $500 for being a pedestrian under the influence.
As with many aspects of the law, there is room for interpretation. Rocky Face resident Michael Keith contested three Dalton police officers’ interpretation of the public drunkenness law after being arrested in November 2011 but lost in court. Keith filed a civil rights violation lawsuit in federal court in Rome, but Judge Harold Murphy ruled in October 2013 that an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop and question Keith when Keith leaned out the window of a pickup truck he was riding in and vomited on the road.
Keith said earlier he planned to appeal the ruling. As of last week, there were no court records filed showing he had done so, and Keith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Keith acknowledged he was drunk that evening, but said a Dalton police officer who stopped his designated driver after Keith vomited onto the road was overstepping his bounds when he charged Keith with public intoxication. The law states no one is allowed to “be and appear in an intoxicated condition” in public if the condition “is made manifest by boisterous, by indecent condition or act, or by vulgar, profane, loud or unbecoming language.” Keith argued that getting sick out his window didn’t meet any of those conditions and that officers violated his rights by detaining him for questioning without adequate cause. His charge was eventually dismissed, although prosecutors didn’t say why.
Outside of Georgia, states have varying laws on public drunkenness and being PUI. Tennessee, for example, has a statute prohibiting public intoxication, which is defined as being “in a public place under the influence of a controlled substance ... to the degree that” the offender is endangered, is endangering others or property or “the offender unreasonably annoys people in the vicinity.”
In Indiana, a Court of Appeals recently decided simply being “annoying” isn’t a valid reason to stick a person with the charge. The court struck down a portion of the state’s public intoxication law that made it a crime to “annoy” another person while drunk in public, according to Time.com. The news website states the case stemmed from an incident in which a man was asleep and allegedly drunk at a bus shelter when a police officer woke him up and told him to move. When he ignored the order, the officer deemed his behavior “annoying” and charged him.