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're one of the more commonly charged crimes. Most disturbing the peace offenses are misdemeanors, though some may be felonies or even infractions (see below).
Though the language of disturbing the peace laws differs from state to state and even city to city within a state, these laws exist everywhere and punish the same types of activity.
In a nutshell, disturbing the peace is any prohibited act that could disrupt the public order or disturb the peace of the community, coupled with an intent to do that act.
Most statutes list out the types of acts that are prohibited. For example, California's statute on disturbing the peace makes it a crime to (1) unlawfully fight or challenge someone to fight in a public place, (2) maliciously and willfully disturb someone with loud and unreasonable noise, or (3) use offensive words that are likely to provoke violence. (Cal. Penal Code § 415 (2022).) Many states include several other types of conduct in their disturbing the peace statutes.
You can't breach the peace by doing something accidentally. But if you do something on purpose, you don't necessarily have to intend to cause a disturbance to be guilty: Often, all you have to do is intend to commit the forbidden act.
But for some types of acts, the prosecutor has to show that you have a certain mindset when you committed them. For example, California's disturbing the peace law (discussed above) says that a loud noise disturbance must be "willful" and "malicious." Courts have interpreted these terms to mean that the noise must be likely to cause immediate violence (in which case just intentionally making the noise is enough to break the law) or the noise must be "for the purpose of disrupting lawful activities." So, if the prosecutor is charging the latter type of noise disruption, they have to prove that the defendant actually intended to disturb others with the noise. (CALCRIM No. 2689; In re Brown, 9 Cal.3d 612 (1973).)
As noted above, state laws on disturbing the peace vary on what types of conduct they ban. Here are some common examples of actions that can lead to disturbing the peace charges, depending on the state:
Some of the conduct that can be charged as disturbing the peace can be charged as other crimes. For example, threatening to injure someone could be charged as criminal threats (often a felony) and touching someone without their permission can be an assault or battery in some circumstances.
Disturbing the peace is often offered as a potential plea bargain for more serious offenses. As noted above, a lot of behavior that's disturbing the peace can also be a more serious crime. 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.
But just because you're charged with a crime doesn't mean you'll be convicted of and 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. (Whether the prosecutor will offer a plea deal often depends on things like how serious the offense is, how strong the evidence is, and what kind of record the defendant has.)
In some states and cities, a disturbing the peace crime might only be an infraction, which is less serious than a misdemeanor. 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 is a better outcome than being convicted of a misdemeanor or felony. For example, some job applications ask the applicant if they've ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Someone guilty of an infraction 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 those kinds of questions.
Though it may not sound like a serious offense, a disturbing the peace conviction can sometimes 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. Having an attorney is important.
Because the circumstances surrounding a disturbance of the peace offense can vary so greatly, and the way prosecutors and judges treat these offenses differs from place to place, you should consult an experienced local criminal defense lawyer. An experienced attorney should 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.