What is disturbing the peace?

Disturbing the peace charges occur when a person has infringed upon or frustrated someone else’s right to peace and tranquility. Disturbing the peace laws are generally regulated by local ordinances or state statutes and vary greatly depending on the location of the charge. Depending on the place of the offense and the conduct associated with the offense, disturbing the peace can be charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor. Punishments for disturbance of the peace can amount to a jail sentence, a fine, or both.

Conduct That Constitutes Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the peace charges in most states require that the person’s conduct be willful or have an otherwise malicious purpose. Willful conduct means that the person’s actions were done with intent, or on purpose. For example, a person can be charged with disturbing the peace when he is protesting during an unlawful protest, involved in a domestic dispute or battery, fighting or challenging someone to fight in public, or using language intended to incite violence.

Seemingly innocent but annoying conduct can also be grounds for a disturbing the peace charge if the person has notice of his disruptive behavior and refuses to cease. In other words, when a person refuses to change his behavior after fair warning, he may be charged with disturbing the peace.

For example, suppose an individual has a birthday party at his house, and plays music loudly into the night. While the loud music may disrupt his neighbors, this is most likely not his intention. If the police arrived at his door and charged him with disturbance of the peace at this point, the individual will likely be able to show the court that his conduct was not willful, and in this case the charge will not be sustained. Now suppose that when the police arrive at his door they tell him that they have received several complaints about the loud music, and warn him that he must turn it down. If the individual continues to keep his music loud after this warning, his once innocent conduct has become willful, and there is now reason for the police to come back and serve him with a disturbance of the peace charge.

Defenses to Disturbing the Peace Charges

One common defense to disturbing the peace is that the behavior in question did not rise to the level of the offense. This defense is used because a disturbance of the peace charge is very subjective: the police generally decide for themselves if the conduct in question amounts to a disturbance of the peace. If an individual’s conduct is simply obnoxious, annoying, or embarrasses someone, this is usually not enough on its own to sustain a disturbance of the peace charge. Further, because this offense is subjective, there is a lot of room to argue that the conduct did not meet the level required for the charge.

Other defenses to disturbing of the peace charges include denial of the conduct, self-defense or defense of others, or invoking the protections of the First Amendment. The defense of self-defense or defense of others usually arises in the context of fighting in public. For example, if one person starts a fight, and the other person merely defends themself, and both are charged with disturbing the peace, the one who simply defended himself in the fight will claim self-defense to overcome the charge. A First Amendment defense is used in cases where the offender admits to the conduct in question, but is protected by his constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Consequences of a Conviction

If the disturbing the peace offense is charged as an infraction, it will generally not go on an individual’s permanent record, and will therefore not show up on an employment background check. However, some states charge a disturbing the peace offense as a misdemeanor, which will stay on an individual’s permanent criminal record, and may affect employment opportunities. Further, depending on the conduct involved, the other offenses committed with the disturbing the peace charges, and prior offenses committed by the individual, some courts have the discretion to charge the offense as either an infraction or a misdemeanor.

In either case, if the charge of disturbing the peace is sustained, the individual will be subject to fines, and if the disturbance of the peace offense is charged as a misdemeanor, there may also be jail time involved.