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Is It a Crime to Drink in Public in Canada?

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If you are confused about public drinking laws in Canada, you’re not alone. Other than a vague understanding that drinking in public is “probably” illegal, most Canadians don’t know the specifics of public drinking laws and the penalties for breaking them. For just one small example, did you know that you can legally drink in Ontario’s provincial parks but not in City of Toronto parks and that the fine for breaking the latter can result in a $300 fine? Or did you know that if Ontario police charge you with public intoxication under provincial law, the maximum fine is $50, whereas if they charge you under federal law, the maximum penalty is six months in jail or a $5,000 fine or both?

The public’s confusion over drinking in public laws undoubtedly arises from its multijurisdictional regulation by the federal government, provinces, and municipalities. While the federal government only has one public drinking-related law, all of the provinces and many cities have enacted their own distinct laws. This creates a national patchwork approach to public drinking under which you can, for example, legally drink in many public places in Quebec but face fines of up to almost $700 if caught doing so in Manitoba.

To help clear up any confusion about public drinking laws, the criminal defence lawyers of the Greater Toronto Area’s Mass Tsang can offer clarity in this blog post. Given our location and likely readership, we will primarily focus on public drinking laws in Ontario. Any information this blog provides should not be construed as “legal advice” and is solely for educational purposes. Anyone facing drinking-related charges should seek the services of an experienced criminal defence lawyer to ensure the best possible outcome.

Public Drunkenness Under the Criminal Code

Canada’s Criminal Code does not explicitly regulate public drinking but does include a provision that makes public drunkenness illegal. Section 175 (1)(a)(ii) of the code names causing “a disturbance in or near a public place by being drunk” a summary conviction offence. The key words of this regulation are “causing a disturbance, because absent the disturbance, there is no crime. According to Section 175 (2), courts may rely entirely on the evidence provided by police to establish whether a disturbance occurred. If convicted, this summary conviction charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both.

Ontario Laws Regulating Public Drinking

Ontario laws that regulate alcohol consumption are addressed by the Liquor License and Control Act of 2019, which includes more than 115 offences. About 30 of these address public consumption and possession in varying ways and carry fines of between $100 to $175. Language in Section 41 (1) of the Act states that “no person shall have or consume liquor in any place other than:

  1. residence;
  2. premises in respect of which a license or permit that permits consumption is issued;
  3. a private place as described by the regulations; or
  4. …a public place designated by a by-law made by the council of a municipality.”

Fortunately, the following section explains that this does not apply to possessing liquor in a closed container. As long as any alcohol you have is in an unopened container with an unbroken seal or is stored in a secure compartment, you are probably not breaking any of Ontario’s public drinking laws. We say “probably” because the vague language in the regulations allows police to consider whether alcohol—unopened or not—is “readily available” within a vehicle. And if you are in a vehicle, you are in “public” unless it is located on private property.

Even though you can close its doors and windows, your car is not a closed compartment. If you are transporting alcohol in an open container with a broken seal or that is not stored in a closed compartment, you are breaking the law. The Act covers all kinds of vehicles, including motor vehicles, boats, and snowmobiles, and addresses different situations. For example, language in the regulations covers both operating the vehicle and having “care or control” over it and applies whether the vehicle is “in motion or not.” This means you do not have to be driving or “behind the wheel” to be charged with a vehicular public drinking-related offence.

Note that the presence of opened or easily accessed alcohol in your vehicle will naturally make police interested in determining whether you might be operating it under the influence. If so, potential penalties for a public drinking-related offence are the least of your worries.

What About Public Drunkenness Under Provincial Law?

Unlike federal law, Ontario police do not need to establish that a disturbance has been created to make an arrest for public drunkenness. Section 31 (1) of the Act merely states, “No person shall be in an intoxicated condition in a place to which the general public is invited or permitted access.” Unless the offender is creating a disturbance, Ontario police typically issue a citation for the offence, which carries a $50 fine. Section 31 (2) of the Act allows police to make an arrest if they believe that the intoxicated person represents a potential threat to any person’s safety. Additionally, if the intoxicated person is causing a disturbance, police are more likely to charge them with the federal summary conviction offence, which carries the much harsher penalties.

Municipal Penalties for Public Drinking

While you might get hit with a $150 fine for a public drinking-related offence on an Ontario street, if your offence occurs in a Toronto park, beach, or other municipal property, you could be fined up to $300. That’s because municipal laws expressly prohibit the consumption of alcohol in those areas.

Consult with the Criminal Defence Experts at Mass Tsang

Given the harsh penalties for breaking federal law, if you’ve been charged with public drunkenness as a summary conviction Criminal Code offence, you might want to seek the services of a skilled criminal defence lawyer, such as those at Mass Tsang. We have decades of experience developing defence strategies that help secure optimal outcomes for our clients. Contact us for a free consultation for all of your criminal defence needs in the Greater Toronto Area.

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