Disorderly conduct is behavior that intends to cause alarm or annoyance in public. Examples of disorderly conduct include:
Disorderly conduct is often considered something of a catch-all criminal charge, as it covers a wide variety of behaviors and is often broadly defined. Shouting loudly and incessantly, obnoxious public drunkenness, public urination and even fights between people may be categorized as disorderly conduct depending upon the severity, locality and circumstances of the offense.
Federal statutes related to disorderly conduct range from offenses committed while attempting to enter restricted government buildings or to impede official government business to offenses committed while on federal park land.
Disorderly conduct charges are most often tried in state and municipal courts as opposed to federal courts, though instances of federal charges do take place on occasion.
A disorderly conduct charge is frequently called for by prosecutors interested in seeing a reasonable penalty meted out to the offender without escalating the issue to a felony offense. Therefore, fines, probation and short jail terms are more common than extensive prison sentences as far as disorderly conduct charges are concerned.
Disorderly conduct charges are typically classified as misdemeanors, but an instance of disorderly conduct involving children, protected classes of persons (law enforcement officers, etc.) or other aggravating factors may be escalated to felony charges. For example, a minor scuffle outside of a bar might be considered disorderly conduct in some jurisdictions, but a serious attack involving a deadly weapon or serious injury may be escalated to aggravated battery or similar.
Disorderly conduct is considered a misdemeanor in most cases, although state laws do vary. The most common punishments for disorderly conduct include fines, probation and jail time. If the disorderly conduct qualifies as a felony, it is punishable by a year or more of jail time in most states.
Don’t underestimate the severity of a disorderly conduct charge. Given that disorderly conduct is almost always prosecuted at the state and/or municipal level, there are a variety of legal penalties if you are convicted. Charges can be filed concurrently in state and federal courts, in rare instances.
In some states, for example, disorderly conduct or breach of the peace is classified as a second-degree misdemeanor. Those convicted of the offense often face a $500 fine as well as up to 60 days in jail (or six months of probation). Many times, charges of disorderly conduct are categorized as class C misdemeanors, the punishment for which is a $500 fine. Prosecutors may escalate a disorderly conduct charge to a class B misdemeanor if an aggravating factor, such as flashing a firearm provocatively in public, is part of the proceedings. The punishment for Class B misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges can be a fine of up to $2,000 in addition to a potential jail term of not more than 180 days.
If you are convicted of disorderly conduct in federal court, the punishment depends largely upon the statute the offender is tried beneath. If you are found guilty of, for example, entering restricted government grounds and impeding official government business (Title 18, Section 1752) you could face a potential prison term of between one to 10 years, depending on whether a weapon was involved or the act results in serious bodily harm.
Some common defenses typically deployed in disorderly conduct cases include a reliance on the First Amendment (in cases where verbal disagreements or arguments are charged as disorderly conduct) and self-defense (in cases involving a fight or scuffle).
Decisively threatening language, or dangerous language such as shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater, is not protected by the First Amendment. So-called “fighting words” are exempt from a First Amendment defense. A defense attorney may find it reasonable to invoke this defense if circumstances dictate as much.
Self-defense may be a viable defense if you can show that you were involved in a fight through no independent action of your own. Finally, simple innocence — or casting reasonable doubt upon the prosecution’s case — is a potential defense if there is a lack of evidence on the prosecution’s side, or if eyewitnesses can corroborate your innocence.
If you are accused of disorderly conduct, it is important to contact criminal defense attorneys to represent you. While it may seem like a minor charge, a conviction could have a negative impact on the rest of your life. Get the best possible outcome in your case by seeking the advice of an experienced attorney who can make sure you retain your rights.