When people behave in a manner that causes disturbance or amounts to a non-peaceful event, such behavior is categorized as disorderly conduct or a breach of the peace. Charges of disorderly conduct arise in situations where intoxicated or rambunctious individuals gather in groups and are involved in outrageous public disturbances.
Disorderly Conduct Laws
The laws on disorderly conduct vary widely among different jurisdictions, and the kind of behavior covered by these ordinances and laws is broad. In many states, disorderly conduct laws cover:
• Circumstances: Many cases of disorderly conduct cover behavior that would not be considered as disorderly if it were to occur in a different place or time. For example, a person singing loudly in a residential street at night can be charged with disorderly conduct, while someone singing loudly at an industrial street during the day is not guilty of breaking any law.
• Objectivity: When someone is charged with disorderly conduct, the prosecution must not necessarily prove that another person was affected by the defendant’s conduct. There is an objective measure used to determine disorderly conduct. A prosecutor is only required to prove that a reasonable individual would have been affected by the conduct.
• Location: Many states outlaw disorderly conduct in public places, or behavior that disrupts public order. Public places are defined as places such as hospital emergency rooms, carnivals, public restrooms, and public entertainment buildings. When inappropriate conduct occurs in private, it meets the public requirement if it disturbs others. When the public element is not required, conduct is deemed as disorderly if it disturbs or disrupts an individual’s peace of mind.
Types of Activity
Certain behaviors qualify as disorderly conduct no matter where you are. These include:
• Fighting: Many states punish physical scuffles, brawling, and fighting as disorderly conduct depending on the circumstances surrounding the incident.
• Protests: Engaging in a peaceful protest is a right that is upheld by the constitutions of many states. However, disruptive protests are acts of disorderly conduct. For example, a demonstration that prevents passage on a pedestrian street is a disruptive protest.
• Disturbing an assembly: Interrupting a religious ceremony, public rally, or city council gathering are all acts of disorderly conduct.
• Public misconduct: Engaging in private behavior in public is a form of disorderly conduct. Public misconduct includes acts such as public intoxication and public urination.
• Police encounters: Many cases of disorderly behavior occur during encounters that people have with law enforcement agencies. For example, arguing with a police officer while at the same time using threatening behavior.
Penalties for Disorderly Conduct
Disorderly conduct is considered a misdemeanor, however, in certain cases; it may be treated as a felony. State laws have varying penalties for disorderly conduct, but in most cases, they include any of the following:
• Jail: A conviction for disorderly conduct may lead to a short jail term. For first time offenders, convictions do not involve jail time, however, for repeat offenders or serious cases of disorderly conduct, the sentence may be a jail term of several weeks or months. Felony convictions are punishable by a jail term of 12 months of more depending on the crime.
• Fines: In many cases, the court will impose a fine on the accused instead of probation or jail. In other cases, the court imposes a fine together with a probation or jail sentence. Fines range from $25 to $1,000 depending on the severity of the offense.
• Probation: The court may sentence a person to several months of probation. If the accused violates the terms of their probation, the court will impose a significant penalty like a higher fine or jail term.
Factors Affecting the Severity of Punishment
• Criminal history
• Violence or the use of weapons
• Destruction of property
• Specific statute violated
• Personal injury
Defenses to Disorderly Conduct
• Freedom of speech: This defense is applicable when one is charged for making noise in public or their involvement in public arguments.
• Self-defense: This defense is applicable when one is charged for their involvement in violence.
• Public/Privacy Distinction: Disorderly conduct charges affect inappropriate behavior in public and not domestic disputes.
• Reasonable doubt: If the prosecution cannot prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt, the defendant can use this to escape a conviction.