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Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the peace, also known as breach of the peace, is a criminal offense that occurs when a person engages in some form of unruly public behavior, such as fighting or causing unreasonable noise. When a person's words or conduct jeopardizes another person's right to peace and tranquility, that person may be charged with disturbing the peace.

To avoid bringing every offensive conduct into the criminal justice system, lawmakers need to review disturbing the peace laws to make sure they are not overly vague or prohibit lawful conduct. Likewise, law enforcement officers need to exercise proper restraint and discretion to avoid accusations that such charges target certain populations.

This article provides a general overview of disturbing the peace. It includes discussion of elements of the offense, defenses, and steps individuals can take to end such behavior.

What Constitutes Disturbing the Peace?

States and local communities enact laws that make it a crime to create a public disturbance or commotion. Sometimes these crimes may be called disorderly conduct. These laws vary from state to state, so it makes sense to review the elements of the crime. Disturbing the peace laws typically prohibit:

  • Fighting or challenging someone to fight in a public place;
  • Using offensive language or "fighting words" in a public place that are likely to incite an immediate violent reaction;
  • Shouting in a public space intending to incite violence or unlawful activity;
  • Bullying a student on or near school grounds;
  • Knocking loudly on hotel doors of sleeping guests with the purpose of annoying them;
  • Holding an unlawful public assembly;
  • Shouting profanities, offensive words, or slurs out of a car window in front of a person's home over an extended period of time;
  • Allowing excessive dog barking in a residential area; and
  • Intentionally playing loud music during the night that continues, even after a fair warning.

In most states, the person's conduct must be on purpose (willful) or with bad intent (malicious). It is not enough that a person engages in conduct that merely annoys, harasses, or embarrasses someone else. If fighting is at issue, it must be unlawful and not in self-defense or the defense of others.

To determine guilt, judges and juries look at the particular circumstances of each case. Some of the factors to consider include the following:

  • Location or place
  • Time
  • Words used
  • Actions taken
  • The persons involved (for example, a police officer, teacher, student, relative, or passerby)

Situations that may lead to a disturbing the peace charge are quite varied. Examples might include getting into a physical fight over a parking space or playing loud music to intentionally annoy and disturb your neighbors.

Crimes against the public peace may appear to be similar at times, yet they have distinct elements. For example, while public intoxication may seem to prohibit disturbances as well, it must also include an element of voluntary intoxication.

Penalties and Punishment

Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Depending on the jurisdiction, it may be a minor infraction and involve no more than a fine and costs. In some cities and states, it may be a low-level misdemeanor. Upon conviction, courts may impose a jail sentence, fines, or alternative sentences such as community service. First-time offenders can typically avoid county jail. Depending on the circumstances of the case, an offender may complete a diversion program and avoid a criminal record.

Use in Plea Bargaining

Because of its nature as a low-level misdemeanor, a plea-bargain reduction of other criminal charges to one of disturbing the peace is not uncommon. Under certain circumstances, prosecutors may allow someone arrested for a crime such as assaultdomestic violenceindecent exposure, trespassing, resisting arrest, or DUI to plead guilty or no contest to disturbing the peace instead. 

By pleading down to a lesser charge, a person could potentially avoid criminal record consequences that may impact employment or immigration status.

Defenses To Disturbing the Peace

Police may use disturbing the peace as a "catch-all" crime in some circumstances. Therefore, criminal defense lawyers will scrutinize the law and its application by the police. Does the law provide objective criteria, or does it allow subjective judgments by the police?

Generally, defenses fall into these categories:

  • The behavior was not disruptive enough;
  • The behavior was provoked by others (i.e., a heated argument);
  • The behavior did not actually disturb anybody;
  • The behavior was in self-defense; or
  • The behavior involved lawful activities.

With this last category, if the offensive conduct at issue was speech or expression, it is also possible that it might fall under the protection of the First Amendment. The "free speech" right is not absolute. The court may entertain motions related to constitutional protections before any trial.

In perhaps the most famous case involving disturbing the peace, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California conviction of a man that wore a jacket that read "F*ck the Draft" in a courthouse in 1968. In Cohen v. California (1971), the Court reviewed California Penal Code section 415 which then outlawed malicious and willful disturbing of the peace or quiet of any neighborhood by offensive conduct. The municipal court had convicted Cohen and sentenced him to 30 days of jail time.

The Court found that absent a more particularized and compelling reason, the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit California from making the public display of this four-letter word a crime. The Court stressed that the conduct here involved protected speech as Cohen wore the jacket to protest the Vietnam War and the draft. It noted that his arrest involved no claims of violent conduct by him or anyone who observed the jacket.

Practical Tips To Address Disturbance of the Peace

Can You Talk It Out?

If a neighbor or acquaintance causes a disturbance (for example, loud noise or music), a simple conversation could be enough to stop the behavior. Assess first whether there is a physical threat or reasonable fear of harm. If not, consider whether you can have a respectful conversation and request that the conduct end. Should that effort fail, or the situation escalates, consider ending the encounter and walking away.

Contact the Police

When problematic behavior persists, or if there is imminent danger present (such as threats or fighting), it may be wise to contact the police. A person who causes a disturbance that disrupts the peace might simply be given a fair warning by the police. This may resolve the matter.

In some jurisdictions, before law enforcement officers will make an arrest they may first need to warn the individual to stop and provide time for compliance. In most cases, involving the police may stop the disruptive behavior altogether. If not, the police report from the original call will serve to document the problem. 

Police may choose to arrest the offender if their conduct continues in spite of the warning. Police officers may collect written or video-recorded statements from complaining witnesses at the scene to support the pursuit of criminal charges.

Contact a Lawyer

If nothing else seems to work, it might be necessary to contact an attorney. Certain types of repetitive disturbances, such as a neighbor's constant loud music, may run afoul of private nuisance laws, in which case you could file a civil lawsuit. Court remedies may include an order to enjoin (stop) the behavior and/or to pay monetary damages to you for the disturbance.

Getting Legal Help with Your Disturbing the Peace Case

If you have been accused or charged with disturbing the peace (or any other crime), it could be risky to handle the matter on your own. Be sure to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows your state's laws. They can draw on their experience to advise you toward achieving the best outcome possible. Consider talking to a criminal defense lawyer near you today.

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