As in most states, disorderly conduct can mean a lot of different things in Virginia, from threatening a person to hitting someone, and from interrupting a meeting to picketing a funeral. There is a lot of variation among state laws and municipal regulations governing disorderly conduct, but what these laws have in common is that they criminalize behavior that is likely to frighten, upset, anger, or annoy others.
For more general information on the crime of disorderly conduct, see Disorderly Conduct Laws and Penalties.
Under Virginia’s laws, a person can commit the crime of disorderly conduct in two different ways, but for either way, the defendant must intend to cause or disregard the risk of causing public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm. First, a person commits disorderly conduct by engaging in any behavior towards another person that tends to provoke a violent reaction. For example, attacking a police officer trying to make an arrest could be considered disorderly conduct.
Second, it is disorderly conduct to intentionally or while intoxicated disrupt a funeral or memorial service, a government meeting, a school or school activity, or a house of worship if the disruption prevents or interferes with the meeting or activity or tends to provoke a violent response. The person in charge of the meeting or activity may escort out anyone who is engaging in disorderly conduct. For example, a person who yells and interrupts a city government meeting, fails to leave when asked to do so, and runs away from a police officer who tries to escort the person out could be convicted of disorderly conduct.
Funeral picketing is yet another example of disorderly conduct. Like other states, Virginia’s lawmakers have criminalized funeral picketing to protect mourners from hate and extremist groups (like the Westboro Baptist Church) who would otherwise protest at memorial services. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-415.)
Merely saying or displaying words does not constitute disorderly conduct in Virginia. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-415.) So, a person who merely says something impolite or mildly offensive is protected by the constitutional right to free speech in the First Amendment and the Virginia Constitution. (Va. Const. Art. 1, § 12.) However, a person who accompanies offensive language with threatening remarks or behavior, when the remarks or behavior are likely to provoke a violent response, can be arrested for and convicted of disorderly conduct.
Getting in the Way (Obstruction)
It is also a crime to:
- block anyone’s movement in any place normally open to the public
- block the way of an emergency responder or refuse to move when asked to do so by an emergency responder, or
- cross a police barricade or line.
Picketing is not considered obstruction, but a person who gets in the way of an ambulance driver or a police officer responding to a car wreck could be convicted of a crime. (Va. Ann. Code §§ 18.2-404, 18.2-414.1, 18.2-414.2.)
Rioting and Unlawful Assembly
During the Civil War, a group of armed women marched to Virginia's capitol to see the governor about the rising cost of bread. After the governor refused to see them, the women and others took to the streets, attacking businesses and looting stores. More than 50 people were convicted after the Richmond Bread Riots.
In Virginia today, a riot is three or more people, acting together, using force or violence that threatens public safety or order. An unlawful assembly is a gathering of three or more people intending to do some act (whether the act is illegal or not) by force or violence likely to threaten public safety or order, or creating a fear of a serious and immediate threat to public safety or order. It is also a crime in Virginia incite (encourage) others to riot, to plan a riot with others, or to remain at the scene of a riot or unlawful assembly after police have ordered the crowd to disperse. Rioting and unlawful assembly are punished more severely if the defendant is armed or causes property damage or injury. (Va. Ann. Code §§ 18.2-405, 18.2-406, 18.2-407, 18.2-408, 18.2-414.)
It is illegal in Virginia to be intoxicated (by drugs or alcohol) in public. (Va. Ann. Code. § 18.2-388.)
For more information, see Virginia Public Intoxication Laws.
Disorderly conduct is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both. The punishment for obstruction ranges from a fine of up to $500 to up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Refusing to disperse is a Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Participating in a riot or unlawful assembly is also a Class 1 misdemeanor, unless the defendant is armed with a firearm or other deadly weapon, in which case the crime is a Class 5 felony. Class 5 felonies are “wobblers,” crimes that can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on how the crime is charged and, sometimes, how the judge or jury decides to treat a conviction. Class 5 felonies in Virginia are punishable by 12 months in jail and a fine of $2,500 or one to ten years in prison. Inciting a riot and conspiring to commit a riot are also Class 5 felonies.
A rioter who causes injury or property damage can be convicted of a Class 6 felony, which is also a wobbler, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of $2,500 or one to five years in prison. (Va. Ann. Code §§ 18.2-388, 18.2-404, 18.2-405, 18.2-406, 18.2-407, 18.2-408, 18.2-414, 18.2-414.1, 18.2-415.)
Obtaining Legal Assistance
Criminal convictions, even for misdemeanors, can have very serious consequences. If you are charged with disorderly conduct, obstruction, or a related crime, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A local defense attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system so that you can obtain the best possible outcome in your case and protect your rights.