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In this article, we’ll talk about:

  • What a charge for disorderly conduct/public intoxication means in South Carolina
  • What disorderly conduct and public intoxication looks like
  • The penalties for a conviction of the disorderly conduct/public intoxication law

In South Carolina, you can be moderately intoxicated or “tipsy” in public as long as you aren’t behaving in a certain way that disturbs or endangers those around you.

In many states, there are separate laws separating public intoxication and disorderly conduct. In SC, all behaviors fall under a single law: public disorderly conduct.

What Is Public Intoxication and Why Isn’t it a Crime?

In South Carolina, it isn’t necessarily a crime to be drunk in public. If you’re not deemed to be behaving in a “disorderly” way, even when meeting the definition of being “grossly intoxicated”, you may not be charged with anything. With that said, many people who are this drunk are charged with disorderly conduct, because as we’ll discuss, the rules are often broadly interpreted.

What Is Public Disorderly Conduct?

According to state law, disorderly conduct can come into play in a wide variety of cases. Section 16-17-530 of the South Carolina Code states that a person can be charged with public disorderly conduct if they do any of the following:

a.) being grossly intoxicated or otherwise disorderly on a highway or at any public place or gathering

b.) using profane or obscene language in any of these settings or within hearing distance of a church or school

c.) firing a gun within 50 yards of a public road or highway while not on one’s own property while intoxicated

Disorderly Conduct is Open to Interpretation

Although the behaviors named in the legal definition of public disorderly conduct are relatively specific, the law actually includes a wide range of activities that can land you a charge. This means that a disorderly conduct charge is open to interpretation, making it more difficult to defend against than other laws more clearly detailed in the state code.

Basically, you’re subject to a disorderly conduct charge any time you make a public disturbance or act in a “disorderly” way in a public place, whether there are other people around or not.

Next we will take a look at the specific terms used in the SC code.

What areas are considered to be “public places”?

The term “public place” refers to anywhere that can freely be entered. In the context of a public disorderly conduct charge, a public place is anywhere you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, including schools, places of worship, public roads, stores, public parks and plazas, museums, etc.

If you are behaving in a “grossly intoxicated” or “disorderly” manner in a private place, but your behavior is observable by members of the public, you can still be charged with disorderly conduct. For example, if you stand outside your home or some other private property and yell obscenities loud enough for passersby to hear, you can still be in violation of SC’s disorderly conduct statute.

What do “disorderly” and “grossly intoxicated” mean?

Neither of these terms is specifically defined by statute in South Carolina, which is part of the reason why a disorderly conduct charge is so difficult to defend against. The arresting officer is given a lot of leeway in his or her explanation of why they considered your behavior to fall under the umbrella of disorderly conduct.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “disorderly” means “engaged in conduct offensive to public order.” This doesn’t narrow down the definition of the law very much since a wide variety of behaviors can fall into this category.

As far as the classification of “gross intoxication,” courts have commented on the definition in numerous states. Basically, if intoxication can be noticed by an outside observer, it can be considered gross intoxication.

Penalties for Disorderly Conduct

In SC, public disorderly conduct is deemed to be a low-level charge, a misdemeanor, and carries any combination of the following penalties:

  • Jail time up to 30 days
  • A fine of up to $100

These penalties are relatively lenient in South Carolina compared to other states. For a first offense, you may be ordered to pay a fine, but be sentenced to pre-trial intervention or community service in lieu of jail time. With each offense, the likelihood increases that the judge with discretion over your case will err on the harsher side of the possible penalties.

If you are convicted of public disorderly conduct, it will appear on your record, and show up on background checks for employment and other purposes. It can impact your life in a serious way.

Some Examples and How the Law Is Applied

In what instances would you be charged with public disorderly conduct?

Say, for example, you were in a fight in a public park. You may be charged with a more serious crime, like assault and battery, if the other party to a fight chose to press charges. In this case, it’s actually less likely that you’d be charged with disorderly conduct, but it’s still possible and fits the scenario.

This is one of the key issues with the statute of disorderly conduct: it’s often — not always — used in absence of any other charges. For example, if you discharged a firearm (one which you came into possession and carried legally) in the middle of a public street, you could get hit with a public disorderly conduct charge. If you fired your gun at another person, however, whether you hit them or not, you’d be subject to a more serious charge such aggravated assault or battery, and disorderly conduct would be unlikely to be used.

Other examples include:

  • Shouting obscenities or using vulgar language near a school
  • Being excessively drunk or under the influence of drugs in public
  • Cursing loudly at a peaceful protest

Defense Against Disorderly Conduct

It’s often difficult to defend against disorderly conduct charges since the application of the statute often comes down to the discretion of the arresting officers.

When you need to defend yourself against a disorderly conduct charge, you can count on lawyers in SC who have the experience and the knowledge to protect your best interests. Contact the Kent Collins Law Firm for more information.

At the Kent Collins Law Firm, we have the experience and to be your guide through all your legal challenges. Give us a call at 803-808-0905. You can also fill out our online contact form, and we’ll be in touch with you.

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