Disturbing the peace is a crime with broad application that is designed to allow people to go about their lives peaceably. Acts covered by disturbing the peace laws in most states range from playing the stereo too loud or a machine making unreasonable noise, to loud cursing or fighting in public.
If you are arrested for disturbing the peace it could result in jail time, fines or both, and the arrest or conviction will follow you when you apply for jobs.
Peaceful, lawful society is considered the default position or state of affairs in U.S. jurisdiction, and so a disturbing of the peace or breach of the peace in a public place is considered an offense worthy of prosecution in some instances. A drunken fist-fight outside of a bar that results in little more than hurt feelings, an act of public urination or an obnoxious person shouting threats, incessantly, at an arresting police officer could all be considered acts that disturb the peace.
These offenses are typically, but not always, charged at the state and/or municipal level, rather than in federal court. Exceptions for disorderly conduct which take place on, or involve federal property do occur, and these cases are typically tried in federal court.
A “breach of the peace” is a term derived from common law precedents and is often considered a disturbance of the peace as part of disorderly conduct more broadly.
From a legal perspective and in most states, disturbing the peace is a subcategory of disorderly conduct more broadly. Disorderly conduct often involves a disturbing of the peace, and there is a lot of cross-over between the two terms.
In some states, the terms breach of the peace and disorderly conduct are used interchangeably in most instances.
Disturbing the peace, breach of the peace and disorderly conduct are typically categorized as misdemeanor offenses unless aggravating factors such as significant violence or threats, are involved, which may call for an escalation to entirely new charges such as assault and battery.
Given that disturbing the peace can be considered a lesser crime, at least when compared to felonious acts, some offenders may instead be faced with penalties related to a civil infraction rather than criminal proceedings.
The punishment for disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct varies greatly depending on the offense as well as the jurisdiction in which the case is being tried.
In some states, for example, disturbing the peace is listed as a formal charge, which means if you are convicted of disturbing the peace such as fighting or challenging a fight in public, maliciously or willfully disturbing another person with loud or unreasonable noise or use of offensive words in public, you could face either an infraction charge or a misdemeanor charge. The former can result in a $250 fine, while the latter may result in a $400 fine as well as the addition of the conviction to your criminal records.
Disturbing the peace may also fall under the charge of disorderly conduct, which might be categorized as a Class E misdemeanor offense. Those convicted of disorderly conduct in these cases may face a penalty of up to 180 days imprisonment in jail in addition to a fine of not more than $1,000.
Public intoxication laws often share crossover with disorderly conduct laws, and vary from state to state. Some states do not have a public intoxication law, and instead, offenders participating in public intoxication are likely to be criminally charged with disorderly conduct if circumstances allow.
Experienced defense attorneys may consider any number of common defenses related to charges of disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct.
Innocence or the existence of reasonable doubt, is a common defense if there is flimsy or unsubstantial evidence, or when a preponderance of eyewitness reports and other material evidence suggests that the defendant is innocent.
Self-defense may also be a viable defense if the context of the offense definitively shows that the defendant was acting wholly defensively, particularly if the charge involves a physical altercation.
If the criminal charges in question center around a verbal altercation, or verbal provocation, a defense invoking the First Amendment may apply, focusing on the right to free speech and expression. However, there are difficulties with this defense if the verbal communication including any direct incitement or threat of violence.
Several U.S. Supreme Court rulings have set a precedent regarding “fighting words” as they relate to the First Amendment, determining that such provocative language is exempt from the protections afforded to citizens via the First Amendment.
A lot depends on the circumstances of the event resulting in your arrest. Your attorney will take every advantage available. For example, your attorney can make these challenges to find you technically innocent of violating the law:
Generally, two defenses are available:
Should you be in violation of disturbing the peace, your attorney has another option. Disturbing the peace as a low-grade misdemeanor is one of very few crimes that can be reduced to an infraction, like a traffic ticket. An infraction is not a crime so going to jail is not possible and it will not prevent you from getting a job.
If you are charged with a more serious crime, such as battery, domestic violence or prostitution, it may be reduced to a disturbing the peace charge.
Although disturbing the peace is a low-grade misdemeanor, meaning the seriousness of the charge is minor, it remains in your best interest to have the benefit of legal counsel experienced in this area of law when you enter the judicial system.
You probably will not need an attorney if the person who called police reporting a disturbance of the peace fails to file a complaint. In that case, the state does not have a victim or a case and you are free to go.