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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Disturbing the peace charges can occur from what seem like minor incidents, such as when you have too much to drink and do something stupid. While you may think your actions aren't that serious, disturbing the peace charges can carry significant consequences for you. Because the circumstances surrounding a disturbance of the peace offense can vary so greatly, and because the way prosecutors choose to prosecute these laws and the way judges impose sentences differ so much, it's important for you to consult a local criminal defense lawyer who is experienced with disturbing the peace offenses. An experienced attorney will be able to evaluate your case and provide you with legal advice based on not only the law, but also on the attorney's experience with the local courts, police, and prosecutors.