Drunk and Disorderly: A Reminder Ahead of the Peak Sports Season

February tends to be a very popular month for sports. The Super Bowl is around the corner, NCAA basketball is heating up with conference games, we are deep into the NBA season, and even the MLB is gearing up for spring training. Fans show their support for and allegiance to teams while watching games at home, in the arena, or at a local bar. Celebration often leads to drinks, drinks occasionally lead to questionable behavior, and questionable behavior frequently leads to consequences. Although it is not a crime in North Carolina to be drunk in public, it is a criminal offense to be drunk and disorderly in public.

Intoxicated and disruptive. Old G.S. 14-334 made it a misdemeanor for any person to be drunk and disorderly in any public place. Old G.S. 14-335 made it a misdemeanor for any person merely to be drunk or intoxicated in any public place. Both offenses were punishable by a fine of not more than $50 or by imprisonment of not more than 30 or 20 days in jail, respectively. Those statutes were repealed in 1977 and replaced by the current public intoxication statutes, found in Article 59 of Chapter 14 of the general statutes.

The current drunk and disorderly statute—renamed intoxicated and disruptive—maintains the element of disorderliness for the offense. Under G.S. 14-444, it is a Class 3 misdemeanor for a person in a public place to be intoxicated and disruptive in any of the following ways: (1) blocking or otherwise interfering with traffic on a highway or public vehicular area; (2) blocking or lying across or otherwise preventing or interfering with access to or passage across a sidewalk or entrance to a building; (3) grabbing, shoving, pushing or fighting others or challenging others to fight; (4) cursing or shouting at or otherwise rudely insulting others; or (5) begging for money or other property. “Public place” is defined under G.S. 14-443 as a place which is open to the public, whether it is publicly or privately owned. As a significant change from the older statutes, G.S. 14-447 makes clear that a person may not be prosecuted solely for being intoxicated in a public place.

Although G.S. 14-444 uses the word “intoxicated” in place of “drunk,” these terms are synonymous for purposes of the offense. “Intoxicated” is defined under G.S. 14-443 as the condition of a person whose functioning is impaired “as a result of the use of alcohol.” The statute thus does not apply to impairment as a result of other substances.

Limited liability for officers. A person who is intoxicated but not disruptive may be assisted by an officer as set out by G.S. 122C-301. An officer may direct or transport the intoxicated individual home, to the residence of another individual willing to accept him, to an appropriate public or private shelter facility, or to any other appropriate health care facility.

In providing the assistance authorized by G.S. 122C-301, an officer may use reasonable force to restrain the intoxicated individual if it appears necessary to protect himself, the intoxicated individual, or others. No officer may be held criminally or civilly liable for assault, false imprisonment, or other torts or crimes on account of reasonable measures taken under authority of this statute.

Defense to public intoxication. G.S. 14-445 provides that it is a defense to a charge of being intoxicated and disruptive in a public place that the defendant suffers from alcoholism. “Alcoholism” is statutorily defined as the state of a person who habitually lacks self-control as to the use of alcoholic beverages or uses alcoholic beverages to the extent that his health is substantially impaired or endangered or his social or economic function is substantially disrupted. G.S. 14-445 contains the following additional provisions.

The presiding judge at the trial of a defendant charged with being drunk and disorderly in public must consider the defense of alcoholism even if the defendant does not raise the defense, and the judge may request additional information on whether the defendant is suffering from alcoholism. If a person charged with being drunk and disorderly enters a plea to the charge, the court may, without entering a judgment, defer further proceedings for up to 15 days to determine whether the person is suffering from alcoholism.

If a defendant is found not guilty of being intoxicated and disruptive in a public place because he suffers from alcoholism, the court in which he was tried may retain jurisdiction over him for up to 15 days to determine whether he is a substance abuser and dangerous to himself or others. The trial judge may make that determination at the time the defendant is found not guilty, or he may require the defendant to return to court for the determination at some later time within the 15-day period.

Probable cause leading to other charges. There is not much North Carolina precedent on this offense. The few cases that have made it to our appellate courts go something like this: officers arrest a defendant, and the defendant resists arrest or assaults the officer during the arrest. The defendant is subsequently charged with assault on an officer. In each case, the defendant challenges the charges, arguing that the initial arrest (for being intoxicated and disruptive) was illegal.

In State v. Sanderlin, 261 N.C. App. 116 (2018), the defendant had a forty-ounce beer in his pocket, smelled of alcohol, and was yelling and “excitedly speaking,” leading the officer to believe that the defendant was “somewhat intoxicated.” The officer ultimately placed the defendant under arrest, during which the defendant struck the officer in the head three times. The defendant was charged with and convicted of assault on a government official and resisting a public officer.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence of his charges, which resulted from an illegal, warrantless arrest. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s conduct and public intoxication created reasonable grounds for the officer to suspect the defendant was in violation of the intoxicated and disruptive statute, giving him probable cause to arrest the defendant.

Similarly, in State v. Cooke, 49 N.C. App. 384, 390 (1980), the Court of Appeals concluded that although the defendant’s intoxication alone was not a violation of G.S. 14-444 and that this charge should have been dismissed, the complaint received by the officers combined with the conduct they observed gave them reasonable grounds to suspect that the defendant was in violation of the statute and that they therefore had probable cause to make the arrest. The defendant’s forceful response to the arrest provided sufficient evidence to support his conviction of resisting arrest and assault on an officer.

On a related note. Bringing it back to the context of sports season, it is also worth noting that G.S. 14-281.1 makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor for any person to throw, drop, pour, release, discharge, expose or place in an area where a sporting event is taking place any substance or object that is likely to cause injury to people participating in or attending those events, or to cause damage to animals, vehicles, equipment, devices, or other things used in connection with such contests or events. This statute includes conduct such as throwing objects at a sports official. A separate statute, G.S. 14-33(b)(9), makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to assault a sports official. These offenses don’t require that the offender be intoxicated, but they serve as reminder to be mindful of one’s conduct during this peak sports season.