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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 excessively loud 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.

This article provides a general overview of disturbing the peace.

What Constitutes Disturbing the Peace?

Laws exist that make it a crime to create a public disruption or commotion. These laws vary from state to state, but they typically prohibit:

  • Fighting or challenging someone to fight in a public place;
  • Using offensive words or words likely to incite violence in a public place;
  • Shouting in a public place 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 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 have been on purpose (willful) or with bad intent (malicious). It is not enough that a person engaged in conduct that merely annoyed, harassed, or embarrassed someone else. If fighting was involved it must have been unlawful, and not in self-defense or the defense of others.

To determine guilt, courts look at the particular circumstances of each case. Some of the factors a judge may consider include the location, time, place, words, actions, and the person spoken to or touched (for example, a police officer, teacher, student, relative, or passerby). Examples might include getting into a physical fight over a parking space, or playing music to intentionally annoy and disturb your neighbors.

Penalties and Punishment

Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Depending on the jurisdiction, violators could face some jail time, fines, or alternative sentences such as community service. First-time offenders can typically avoid jail time depending on the circumstances of their cases.

How to Handle a Disturbance of the Peace

Address the Behavior with Conversation

If a neighbor or acquaintance causes a disturbance a simple conversation could be enough to stop the behavior, as long as there is no physical threat or fear of potential harm. Should that effort fail and the situation escalates, it might be necessary for the parties to separate from each other.

Contact the Police

When problematic behavior persists, or if there is imminent danger present (such as fighting), it may become necessary to contact the police. A person who causes a disturbance that disrupts the peace might simply be given a fair warning by the police. In some jurisdictions, it is necessary for a person to continue a disturbance after a police warning before that person can be arrested and charged. In most cases, involving the police can stop disruptive behavior altogether. If that fails, however, the police report will document the problem and police could choose to arrest the offender if the conduct is egregious or persistent.

Contact a Lawyer

Finally, 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 a civil lawsuit could enjoin the behavior, or the offender might even be required to pay damages to those who were disturbed.

Defenses to Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the peace can seem rather subjective, so police tend to apply it to many types of disruptive behavior. Generally, defenses fall into three categories: the alleged behavior was not disruptive enough; the alleged behavior was provoked by others (i.e., a heated argument); or nobody was actually disturbed by the behavior. To defeat these defenses, police will often collect written or video-recorded statements from complaining witnesses at the scene to support charges. It is also possible that the objectionable actions fall under the protection of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Use in Plea Bargaining

Because of its flexible nature, a charge of disturbing the peace is sometimes used to resolve an assortment of other low-level criminal offenses. Prosecutors may allow someone arrested for a crime such as public intoxicationdisorderly conductindecent exposureassaultpublic nuisance, or prostitution 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.

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 attorney who knows the ropes.

Contact a criminal defense lawyer near you today.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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