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Disturbing the Peace

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

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, he or she may be charged with 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 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 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).

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

  • Engaging in horseplay;
  • Simply embarrassing someone;
  • Merely annoying someone;
  • Accidentally bumping into someone; and
  • Giving someone a gesture such as the middle finger.

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 may be able to avoid jail time depending on the circumstances of their cases.

What Can a Victim 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 the conduct in question 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. A person who disrupts the peace is often given a fair warning by police, followed by enforcement actions, if needed. In most cases, merely involving the police can stop the disruptive behavior altogether.

Contact a Lawyer

Finally, if none of the above actions help, you may wish to contact an attorney. Certain types of repetitive disturbances, such as a neighbor's constant loud music, may run afoul of private nuisance laws too, in which case you may have the option to bring a civil lawsuit, if necessary.

Defenses to Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the peace is rather subjective, so police are able to apply it to many types of disruptive behavior. Generally, defenses fall into three categories: (1) "I didn't do it"; (2) "I did it, but I had to" (as in self-defense or defending others); or (3) my conduct didn't disturb anyone. It is also possible that the objected-to 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 intoxication, disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, assault, public nuisance, or prostitution to plead guilty or no-contest to disturbing the peace instead. By pleading down to a lesser charge, a person can potentially avoid criminal record consequences that may impact employment or immigration status.

Getting Legal Help with Your Disturbing the Peace Case

If you've been charged with disturbing the peace or any other crime, it can 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.

Next Steps

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