Disorderly conduct (also called “disturbing the peace”) is a crime that usually involves some kind of offensive or disruptive public activity. Criminal statutes in some states include public intoxication as one kind of behavior that can be considered disorderly conduct. In other states, public intoxication is a separate criminal offense, while in still other jurisdictions the criminal codes might include a crime called “drunk and disorderly” conduct. This article discusses disorderly conduct and public intoxication crimes, whatever they might be called where you live.
It’s worth noting that alcohol is often a factor in the commission of many other crimes not discussed here. Estimates are that alcohol or drug abuse plays a significant role in the commission of at least a third of all serious crimes, including domestic violence and many assult crimes. Other crimes where alcohol is a key factor include DUI or DWI and minor in posssession in or underage drinking offenses.
What is Disorderly Conduct?
Disorderly conduct laws allow police officers to arrest people whose public behavior is disruptive or offensive or whose actions interfere with other people’s enjoyment of public spaces — often because of the offender’s use of alcohol or drugs. But remember that in many states, a criminal charge of disorderly conduct does not require the offender’s use of alcohol. Any kind of disruptive conduct — including loitering, fighting, being unreasonably noisy, and otherwise disturbing the peace — can fall under the definition of disorderly conduct depending on how the crime is defined in the state’s criminal statutes.
Disorderly Conduct State Law Example: California
To get an idea of the kind of behavior that might be covered under disorderly conduct statutes, check out this excerpt from California’s Penal Code (Section 647), which defines the crime of disorderly conduct in California:
647. Every person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor:
(a) Who solicits anyone to engage in or who engages in lewd or dissolute conduct in any public place or in any place open to the public or exposed to public view.
(b) Who solicits or who agrees to engage in or who engages in any act of prostitution…
(c) Who accosts other persons in any public place or in any place open to the public for the purpose of begging or soliciting alms.
(d) Who loiters in or about any toilet open to the public for the purpose of engaging in or soliciting any lewd or lascivious or any unlawful act.
(e) Who lodges in any building, structure, vehicle, or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner or person entitled to the possession or in control of it.
(f) Who is found in any public place under the influence of intoxicating liquor, any drug, controlled substance, toluene, or any combination of any intoxicating liquor, drug, controlled substance, or toluene, in a condition that he or she is unable to exercise care for his or her own safety or the safety of others, or by reason of his or her being under the influence of intoxicating liquor, any drug, controlled substance, toluene, or any combination of any intoxicating liquor, drug, or toluene, interferes with or obstructs or prevents the free use of any street, sidewalk, or other public way.
Most (not all) states have laws that make it a crime to be intoxicated in public (whether due to alcohol consumption, drug use, or both), although some state laws require some kind of accompanying disruptive public behavior (similar to disorderly conduct). In states where there is no specific public intoxication law on the books, law enforcement officers may have the discretion to detain people who are intoxicated to a debilitating level and let them sleep it off in a local jail cell.
Public intoxication laws are meant to protect the safety of someone who is intoxicated, and more generally protect society’s interest in unobstructed and safe use of sidewalks, parks, shopping malls, restaurants and virtually any space outside one’s home that is open to the public.
CASE EXAMPLE: PUBLIC INTOXICATION
After attending a raucous bachelorette party in a club, Jenny walks outside and tries to hail a passing cab. Signs that Jenny has been drinking are obvious — she smells of alcohol, her eyes are bloodshot, and her speech is slurred and unusually loud. Yet she remains standing on the sidewalk while waiting for a cab and does not interfere with other passersby. Jenny is probably not guilty of public intoxication.
Punishment for Disorderly Conduct and Public Intoxication
In most states, disorderly conduct and public intoxication are considered misdemeanors, and are punishable by fines, alcohol education programs, community service, probation, and jail sentencing of less than one year of incarceration — although any jail sentence that’s handed down is usually much shorter, and in many cases incarceration can be avoided altogether.
Disturbing the Peace
Disturbing the peace, also known as a breach of the peace, disorderly conduct, or by similar terms, occurs whenever someone acts in a way that disrupts the public order or disturbs the peace and tranquility of the community. Disturbing the peace laws are very broad, covering a wide range of activity, and because of this they are one of the more commonly charged crimes. Most disturbing the peace offenses are misdemeanors, though some may be felonies or even infractions (see below).
Breach of the peace was originally a common law offense, meaning it was developed over time by judges and court decisions, and was not an offense specifically enacted into law by legislatures. Today, breach of the peace offenses are usually statutory offenses, meaning each state has a different statute (law) that details what breach of the peace is and what the penalties are. Though the language of these laws differs among states, and even cities in individual states, breach of the peace laws exist everywhere and punish the same type of activity.
Disturbances: Activity that Disturbs or is Illegal
It may sound counterintuitive, but to be convicted of disturbing the peace you don’t actually have to do something that results in a disturbance of the community’s order. All you have to do is engage in conduct that is unlawful or otherwise unjustifiable (of course, an actual disturbance qualifies too). The kind of activity that falls into this category is incredibly broad. Courts have held that improperly disturbing a public assembly, yelling loudly, getting rowdy while drunk, interfering with regular business operations, or touching someone without their permission qualifies as disturbing the peace.
Intention: Intending the Act, Not Necessarily the Result
You can be convicted for disturbing the peace even if you never intend your words or actions to disrupt the public order. A prosecutor need only show that you intended to commit the actions you did, and those actions would likely lead to disturbing the public order, provoke violence, or cause a similar disturbance. Though you cannot breach the peace by accidentally causing something to happen, you can breach the peace even if you do not specifically mean to cause a disruption.
Words that Disturb
In some situations what you say can qualify as disturbing the peace. Though the Constitution protects your freedom of speech, courts have long recognized some limitations to this freedom. You can commit a breach of the peace, for example, by making threats. However, the threats must be more than idle chatter or even arguments. The threat must threaten serious injury and be of a nature that would cause fear of an injury in an average listener. You must also issue the threat while acting recklessly and in a way that shows you intend to commit violence or follow through on the threat.
Disturbing the Peace as a Lesser Offense to More Serious Crimes
Disturbing the peace is often offered as a potential plea bargain for more serious offenses. For example, if you get into a fistfight, you’ll likely be charged with a battery, or perhaps the more serious offense of aggravated battery. However, just because you’re charged with a crime does not mean you’ll be sentenced for that crime. Prosecutors commonly accept plea agreements, also known as plea bargains, which allow you to plead guilty to a less serious charge that also applies in your case. In the fight situation, for example, you could also have been charged with disturbing the peace because your actions also fit that crime. Because breach of the peace applies to a wide range of more serious crimes, it’s often offered as a part of a plea bargain.
In some states and cities, a disturbing the peace crime can constitute an infraction. Punishments for infractions include fines and community service, but not jail time. Some jurisdictions even treat certain kinds of infractions as civil, rather than criminal, offenses—an example is a traffic ticket.
Pleading to an infraction can help you, for example, if you are filling out a job application and are asked if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. If you are convicted of, or plead guilty to, a disturbing the peace infraction only, you can honestly answer “no” to that question. But some job applications ask broader questions that encompass any kind of “criminal” behavior. Ultimately, the phrasing of the question and the way your jurisdiction classifies the infraction determine how you should answer such questions
Though it may not sound like a serious offense, a disturbing the peace conviction can bring serious penalties. While the vast majority of disturbing the peace charges are misdemeanors or infractions, felony charges are possible depending on the state and the circumstances surrounding the crime.
Jail. If you’re convicted of a misdemeanor disturbing the peace charge, you face a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail. However, many states carry maximum jail penalties of less than a year, such as a maximum of 60 days. For a felony conviction you face a year or more in a state prison. Jail sentences may be imposed separately, or in addition to, fines and probation.
Time served. In many disturbing the peace convictions, a judge sentences defendants to a “time served” jail sentence. This means the court allows you to use the time you’ve already spent in jail as credit towards the jail sentence. A “time served” sentence may be accompanied by fines or probation.
Fines. Fines are very common in disturbing the peace convictions, though the amounts can vary greatly. A first time misdemeanor conviction can bring relatively low fines of $100, and sometimes less. For more egregious actions or repeated offenses, fines can be $2,000 or more, depending on the state, the circumstances, and the judge. Felony convictions are usually at least $1,000, and often much higher.
Probation. In some disturbing the peace convictions, a judge may also sentence you to a probation term. Probation typically lasts at least 6 months, during which time you must meet specific conditions. For example, if you’re on probation you’ll have to make sure you don’t commit any more crimes, and if you’re ever stopped by the police you will have to notify them that you are on probation
The Morales law Firm would like to thank NOLO for sharing this information with us.