Certain state and local laws prohibit behavior considered disruptive or threatening to public safety or the general peace of a community. Think of teens or young adults instigating a fight in a public park. Or consider a disruptive neighbor setting off fireworks after midnight. State and local authorities enact public safety violation laws to maintain order and keep the peace.
Public safety violations include offenses like disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and public intoxication. These crimes may become "catch-all" offenses for actions or words that compromise the safety or general peace of public places. The exact terms of the statutes vary from state to state. State and local authorities may also have laws prohibiting specific acts that raise safety concerns. For example, there may be crimes against the illegal use of fireworks, misconduct at an emergency, or inducing panic.
This Public Safety Violations subsection provides an overview of public safety offenses. It includes in-depth articles addressing the elements of each crime and defenses for each. State law examples will illustrate how law enforcement agencies use these offenses in their daily work.
Disturbing the Peace and 'Fighting Words'
In reviewing any state's public safety crimes, you may encounter a prohibition on "fighting words." So, can words alone get you in trouble with the law? Doesn't the First Amendment protect the right to "free speech"?
In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a street corner preacher who called out the local city marshal as a "racketeer" and "Fascist." Chaplinsky, the preacher, challenged the state law prohibiting offensive speech directed at others in public. He claimed the law violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment. In affirming the conviction, the Court stated:
"There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words those by which their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."
As a result, state laws on disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct often contain a reference to insults, taunts, or offensive language that are likely to lead to an immediate breach of the peace. States and localities may require that these fighting words occur in a public place. The offender must direct them at one or more persons. But each state law is different.
Disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct are misdemeanor offenses. In a juvenile court, they may form the basis for a finding of delinquency. They can be minor violations in the criminal justice system. They will expose an offender to a fine and costs. They will likely result in record information that appears in a background check. When the misconduct continues after police warnings to stop, these offenses may bring the possibility of jail time.
Disorderly Conduct and Assaulting a Police Officer
Sometimes, disorderly conduct can become the more severe crime of assaulting a police officer or inciting a riot. These may be felony criminal offenses. For example, in Ohio, to prove the crime of assault of a peace officer, the State must show the defendant knowingly caused or attempted to cause physical harm to a peace officer while they were in the performance of the officer's official duties.
The offense is a fourth-degree felony. It exposes the offender to 18 months in prison. If the offender causes serious physical harm to the officer, the court must impose a mandatory sentence of at least 12 months.
Under some laws, the state must show the defendant's misconduct prevented the officer from performing their duties. Several states have expanded these laws. Thus, an assault against a first responder engaged in their duties may likewise be a felony.
One of the most aggravating problems between neighbors is noise. If your neighbor is seriously bothering you with noise, the neighbor may be violating a local noise law. Typical laws regulate the times, types, and loudness of the noise a person must tolerate in the interests of being neighborly.
In densely populated communities, cities may also have ordinances related to barking dogs. Man's best friend garners lots of support these days, but not when he's penned up barking outside at all hours of the night. Alert neighbors tend to know when they can confront the problem neighbor-to-neighbor or need to get official help. A warning from law enforcement officers or animal control may suffice to restore the peace.
Keep in mind, noise can legally exceed the limit in emergencies, such as road repair. Also, some cities issue permits for certain activities, such as a construction project, street festival, or special event.
Intoxication and Controlled Substances
The abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs raises concerns for public safety in most neighborhoods. Intoxicated persons can be a threat to themselves and others. The illegal drug trade can involve firearms and career criminals.
The crime of public intoxication is a misdemeanor offense. It can provide law enforcement the ability to stop and question individuals who cause a disturbance or need help. The police may assess whether there is probable cause that the person is under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.
In some instances, the police may conduct a field investigation and collect criminal justice information (a check for warrants). Otherwise, they can only encourage the person to go home. Where the police find probable cause for a crime, they can cite or arrest the person. The police will focus on the person's safety or the safety of others. They have the discretion to act in the public interest.
Under some laws, the police may take the person into civil custody and remove them to a rehabilitation facility. In this situation, the encounter may not appear in the offender's criminal history record. Of course, police intervention with an intoxicated person may also prevent the person from getting into a motor vehicle and engaging in drunk driving.
The Impact of Public Safety Violations
In cities with significant numbers of unhoused residents, many question the response of criminal justice agencies. Some citizens claim the police do not do enough to clear the streets of panhandlers and those setting up tents in vacant lots and on sidewalks. Others claim that police resources are misappropriated. They claim the issues with unhoused populations relate to addiction and mental health care.
Repeated arrests and processing through the criminal justice system creates its own downward spiral. Those struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues have many challenges. Misdemeanor convictions in criminal cases come with fines and costs. Efforts to seek employment can stall after a public record search showing several arrests, no matter how minor the charge. For those under court supervision from a past offense, a disorderly conduct charge may lead to revocation of probation.
Several incidents have highlighted the limits of police response to situations involving mental health care. So, cities began experimenting with new models for emergency response. In some communities, the government directs resources to cross-train law enforcement officers with mental health professionals. This training provides more practical skills to a police officer at the scene of a call.
In Philadelphia, officials have created mobile response units in behavioral and mental health. Since 2021, Philadelphia revised its mental health hotline. It placed professional crisis workers in the 911 dispatch center to divert calls from police where appropriate. Increases in staffing permit 24/7 coverage throughout the city. Mental health mobile response units do not arrive with lights and sirens. The focus remains on resolving the crisis peacefully and without arrest when possible.
In communities with large immigrant populations, police intervention can have negative results. Criminal charges may lead to deportation and other consequences. Federal law provides a list of offenses that may form the basis for deportation hearings. Disturbing the peace may not appear on the list. Yet, if an incident escalates to domestic violence or assault, federal government action becomes more probable. For those needing a work visa to remain in the country, an arrest for a public safety violation or any criminal offense may pose a significant risk.
Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney
If you face charges for a public safety violation, you should consider getting help from a criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer can explain your rights in all stages of the criminal process. They can discuss your options with you. This may include the possibility of expungement of a conviction in the future.
Criminal laws and penalties vary by state. An experienced, local criminal defense attorney can help you secure a just outcome.