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 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?

Disturbing the peace laws exist to prevent people from disturbing the peace of others while they are tending to their daily business and personal affairs. 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, (sometimes even against a police officer).

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

Penalties and Punishment

Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Depending on the jurisdiction, violators could face some jail time, fines, or other 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 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. 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 can consider contacting an attorney. In addition to violating disturbing the peace laws, disruptive behavior may also violate private nuisance laws, in which case, filing a civil lawsuit could help to end the disruptive behavior.

Defenses to Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the peace is a subjective charge. This means that police have broad discretion to apply it to many types of disruptive behavior. Generally, defenses 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. Lastly, your actions could also fall short of the type of peace disturbing conduct prohibited by law.

Additional Considerations:

Related Offenses

Other offenses related to disturbing the peace include public intoxication, disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, and public nuisance, which can be charged in addition to disturbing the peace. Additionally, conduct prohibited by disturbing the peace laws may expose the perpetrator to civil liability in a private nuisance lawsuit as discussed above.

Larger Criminal Charges

Because of the broad nature of a disturbing the peace charge, it's 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 also charged with the lesser offense of disturbing the peace.

Getting Legal Help with Your Disturbing the Peace Case

Disturbing the peace charges can arise in a variety of situations. Regardless of the situation, it's important to realize that even if you've been accused of disturbing the peace, you have the right to defend yourself, at trial if needed. If you've been charged with disturbing the peace, you may want to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss the facts of your case.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified criminal lawyer to make sure your rights are protected.

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