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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 disorderly conduct, such as fighting or threatening to fight in public, causing excessively loud noise, by shouting, playing loud music, or even allowing a dog to bark for prolonged periods of time. When a person's words or conduct jeopardizes others right to peace and tranquility, he or she may be charged with disturbing the peace.

Disturbing the peace laws are covered by state or local ordinances. While disturbing the peace is not considered a serious criminal offense, it is an offense punishable by jail time, monetary fine, or both.

What Constitutes Disturbing the Peace?

Disturbing the peace laws vary from state to state. Generally, disturbing the peace refers to words or conduct that compromises the safety, health, morals or overall peace and quiet of the public.

Disturbing the peace charges cover a variety of conduct and often falls under the broader "catch-all" category of disorderly conduct.

Some examples of disorderly conduct include:

  • Fighting or challenging someone to fight in a public place
  • Using offensive words in a public place likely to incite violence
  • 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 another person. If fighting was involved, it must have been unlawful, and not in self-defense or to protect someone.

To determine guilt, a court will 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).

Common actions that do not constitute disturbing the peace may include:

  • Engaging in horseplay;
  • Simply embarrassing someone;
  • Merely annoying someone;
  • Accidentally bumping into someone;
  • Giving someone a gesture such as the middle finger, (sometimes even against a police officer).

However, if a person's non-violent actions are likely to incite violence or public disorder, criminal liability may apply.

Purpose of the Law

Disturbing the peace is a law against public disorder and chaos. Laws against disorderly conduct, such as disturbing the peace, exist to prevent people from disturbing the peace of others while they are tending to their daily business and personal affairs.

Disturbing the peace may be charged as part of the broader catch-all crime of disorderly conduct, which includes many other types of public disturbances, or it may be charged separately, based on the factors listed above and the laws of the particular state.

Penalties and Punishment

Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor criminal offense. A person charged with disturbing the peace may face jail time of up to 90 days, fines up to $400, or both. In many instances, disturbing the peace is a first criminal offense and, if so, a person may avoid jail time altogether if convicted.

Your Rights as a Victim

If you, or someone you know, believe that you are the victim of disorderly conduct or loud and excessive noise or disruption, it is important to know what you can do to minimize or stop the harm your are experiencing.

What Can You Do?

Ask Them to Stop the Behavior
If the perpetrator is a neighbor or person you know, and you do not feel physically threatened or in potential harm, you might explain that their conduct is problematic and ask him or her to stop the behavior. Should the situation escalate, you should remove yourself immediately.

Contact the Police
If the harm continues, or if there is imminent danger (such as fighting) you may want to contact the police and explain the situation to them. A person who disrupts the peace is often given a fair warning by police. In most cases, police involvement may stop the disruptive behavior altogether.

Contact a Lawyer
Finally, if none of the above actions help your situation, it may be necessary to contact an attorney. In addition to violating criminal laws against disturbing the peace, disruptive behavior may violate nuisance laws, in which case, filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator might help bring an end the disruptive behavior.

Defenses to Disturbing the Peace:

If you, or someone you know, are facing or may face disturbing the peace charges, it is important to know your legal rights and defenses to minimize or avoid penalties and/or criminal charges.

Disturbing the peace is a subjective charge. This means that police are given broad discretion to apply the charge to many types of disruptive behavior. Generally, defenses to criminal charges fall into two categories: (1) "I didn't do it", or (2) "I did it, but I had to" (as in self-defense or reasonable defense of others). There is also the possibility that your actions fall under the protection of the First Amendment right to free speech. Finally, your actions in question may simply fall short of the type of peace disturbing conduct prohibited by law.

Check with a lawyer in your area to find out whether a defense may apply to your particular situation.

Additional Considerations:

Related Offenses
Offenses related to disturbing the peace include public intoxication, disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, and public nuisance. Such charges may be filed of, or in addition to, disturbing the peace charges. Additionally, conduct prohibited by disturbing the peace laws may expose the perpetrator to civil liability in a nuisance lawsuit files by an aggrieved individual such as a neighbor who has been continually disturbed.

Larger Criminal Charges
Because of the broad nature of a disturbing the peace charge, it is often included among more serious crimes, such as prostitution, battery, domestic violence, or other criminal threats. Often, when a person is arrested for one of these greater offenses, they are additionally charged with the lesser offense of disturbing the peace.

Disturbing the Peace as a Plea Bargaining Tool
Defense lawyers often use disturbing the peace as a plea bargaining tool against the more serious charges faced by their clients. Because punishment for disturbing the peace often involves little or no jail time, the lesser charge of disturbing the peace is sought after in a plea negotiation. If you have been charged with a greater criminal offense, you may ask your lawyer whether negotiating a plea bargain for disturbing the peace might benefit you.

Disturbing the Peace and Permanent Criminal Records
In certain cases, minor offenses such as disturbing the peace are often excluded from criminal records, employment background checks, and other routine criminal activity checks. This is more common when the disturbing the peace conviction is a person's first offense. Even so, there are some states and organizations that may require you to disclose this type of information, such as on school, government, or security applications. You should check with your local state laws to find when and how you may need to disclose past disturbing the peace charges and convictions.

Conclusion

Disturbing the peace is a crime against public disorder and chaos. Disturbing the peace laws cover a wide variety of behaviors and vary from state to state. Typically, behavior must be willful and with malicious intent to constitute disturbing the peace. Actions taken in reasonable defense of oneself or others do not qualify, nor do actions which constitute protected free speech.

Contact a local attorney to learn more about the specific disturbing the peace laws of your state, and what defense(s) might apply to a specific situation.

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