Disorderly Conduct

Almost every state has a disorderly conduct law on the books. Disorderly conduct, known as "disturbing the peace" in some states, represents a common public safety crime. Many types of obnoxious or unruly conduct may fall under these statutes and can result in criminal charges and possibly jail time. 

Criminal defense lawyers often call these "catch-all" crimes. Generally speaking, law enforcement officers may use a disorderly conduct charge to keep the peace when a person is behaving in a disruptive manner and presents some public danger.

In the following article, you'll find examples of state disorderly conduct laws. It will include a discussion of the possible penalties for this crime. The article will also highlight constitutional issues and legal defenses that can arise in prosecution of disorderly conduct cases.

Examples of State Disorderly Conduct Laws and Penalties

The charge of disorderly conduct can vary from state to state. In several states, including New York and Ohio, the crime may include elements with the following or similar language. The crime occurs when a person:

  • Has intent (willing, knowing, or reckless) to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm.
  • Engages in fighting or threats of harm to person or property.
  • Makes unreasonable noise.
  • Uses offensive words, insults, taunts, coarse or obscene language, or a display that is likely to provoke a violent response.
  • Hinders or prevents the movement of persons or vehicles in traffic in a manner that interferes with the rights of others and has no lawful purpose.
  • Creates conditions that are physically offensive to others or that present a risk of physical harm to others or their property with no lawful purpose.

In Ohio, disorderly conduct is a minor misdemeanor offense. The law also includes the crime of disorderly conduct by public intoxication. This encompasses conduct that causes a risk of physical harm to the offender, other persons, or property. Most often, disorderly conduct may involve a citation and a possible fine and court costs. If the offender persists after reasonable warning by police, then the offense can become a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. This would expose the offender to up to 30 days of jail time and/or a fine of $250 and court costs.

In New York, disorderly conduct is a violation. New York also includes a prohibition on disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting, which Ohio treats that as a separate offense. New York's law also focuses on the behavior occurring in a public place, although case law suggests that a public place may include one's own backyard or one's own house when hosting a public event. A violation like disorderly conduct is a criminal offense, but one less serious than a felony or misdemeanor. Potential penalties include up to 15 days in jail and/or a fine of $250.

In Texas, prosecutors must prove that a defendant intentionally and knowingly performed the acts constituting disorderly conduct. Thus, reckless conduct is not prohibited. Like New York, the Texas statute bans disorderly conduct in public places. The Texas law also protects persons and not property. It includes a prohibition on conduct consistent with "peeping" when an individual acts with lewd intent. It bans certain nude conduct in public places when the offender is reckless about whether others are present who may take offense or suffer alarm.

Disorderly conduct is generally a class C misdemeanor in Texas and can result in a fine of up to $500. If the offense involves unlawful discharge/display of a firearm or deadly weapon in a public place, it becomes a class B misdemeanor. In such a case, the potential penalties increase to up to 180 days in county jail and/or a fine of $2,000.

Comparable to the penalties for disturbing the peace, a disorderly conduct conviction can lead to a wide range of sentences. It will often depend on the nature of the conduct and whether the offender continued after police warning.

In Florida and most other states, disorderly conduct offenses are misdemeanors. Although these are criminal cases, a police officer may simply issue a citation requiring the recipient to pay a fine, like a traffic ticket. The court may offer the offender an opportunity to engage in days of community service in lieu of the fine. For more dangerous or disruptive behavior, the police officer may bring the person to the county jail and require someone to bail the person out. The court may impose a jail sentence upon conviction.

Disorderly conduct charges can elevate to more serious charges, especially at times of civil unrest or disorder. For example, if the conduct rises to inciting a riot, law enforcement may pursue felony charges.

Constitutional Issues and Legal Defenses

Defendants facing disorderly conduct charges have raised defenses based on their constitutional rights in a series of federal and state court cases. Such challenges often fall along the lines of First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and assembly. 

Sometimes, a legal challenge happens when a disorderly conduct law appears to be overbroad — that is, it bans protected rights like free speech along with unprotected conduct such as issuing physical threats. Yet, defendants have also claimed these laws are "void for vagueness." This may present a due process violation. If the disorderly conduct law is so vague that the average person cannot read the law and understand what behavior is prohibited, courts may stop the State from enforcing it.

In the case of Cohen v California (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a conviction under a California Penal Code statute prohibiting disturbing the peace. The defendant wore a jacket that said "F*ck the Draft" inside a city courthouse. The police charged Cohen with the offense claiming his conduct was offensive and tended to disturb the peace. The Court noted that the incident occurred in 1968 at a time when the Vietnam War and the draft were politically contentious matters. 

There was no evidence anyone expressed offense at Cohen's jacket before his arrest. Cohen did not address his conduct at any specific individual. The Court saw the message on the jacket as political speech deserving protection under the First Amendment.

Other defense strategies related to disorderly conduct charges include the following:

  • The defendant was unaware that their conduct caused inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm to others
  • The matter occurred in a private home or place; no public conduct
  • The behavior relates to acts of schoolchildren under a certain age while on school premises during the school day
  • The conduct followed significant provocation by the unlawful actions of another person
  • The conduct was in self-defense or the defense of others
  • The behavior at issue is lawful

Facing Disorderly Conduct Charges? Talk to an Attorney

Whether you've been accused of disturbing the peace, being disorderly and drunk in public, loitering, or any other behaviors that may constitute disorderly conduct, it's important to know the consequences of a plea bargain or criminal conviction. Although these cases rarely rise to the level of a felony crime, you should understand how pleading guilty or no contest can impact your criminal record. Consider contacting a qualified criminal defense attorney near you to learn more and get legal advice.

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