Disorderly Conduct Laws and Penalties

Disorderly conduct laws penalize disruptive or offensive behavior that disturbs the peace or endangers the safety or health of the community.

By | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

States and municipalities enact disorderly conduct laws in an effort to keep communities running smoothly, calmly, and peacefully. Whenever people engage in conduct that is likely to cause a disturbance or lead to some sort of non-peaceful event, this behavior is often prosecuted as disorderly conduct, sometimes referred to as "breach of the peace."

This article reviews common definitions and penalties for disorderly conduct, as well as conduct that falls under these prohibitions.

What Is Disorderly Conduct?

Disorderly conduct generally refers to conduct that disturbs the peace or endangers the safety or health of the community. The range of conduct prohibited tends to be quite broad, and the crime sometimes ends up being a catchall for a lot of different disruptive behavior. For instance, the crime of disorderly conduct may penalize fighting in public, public intoxication, screaming obscenities at people on the street, and loudly disrupting a public meeting. As you may imagine, disorderly conduct is probably one of the most commonly filed criminal charges in any jurisdiction.

What Are Disorderly Conduct Laws?

Disorderly conduct laws differ significantly among states and municipalities. States typically categorize disorderly conduct as any offensive, obscene, abusive, or disruptive behavior that is likely to cause other people alarm, anger, annoyance, or an increased likelihood to engage in unlawful activity. This definition looks not only at the type of conduct involved but also at the circumstances surrounding the conduct.

Circumstances. Many disorderly conduct cases involve behavior that would not otherwise be disorderly if it occurred in a different location or at a different time. For example, someone shouting loudly in a residential neighborhood street late at night is engaging in disorderly conduct, while someone using the exact same language and voice volume in an industrial area in the middle of a weekday is not.

Objectivity. When a prosecutor charges someone with disorderly conduct, it isn't always necessary for the prosecution to show that another person was alarmed by the accused's conduct. Courts apply an objective standard when determining disorderly conduct laws. This means that a prosecutor must only show that a reasonable person would have been alarmed by the conduct

Location. Some states prohibit disorderly conduct in a public area or conduct that disturbs the public order, though others do not require the behavior to occur in public or affect the public. Courts have held that public areas include such places as public restroom stalls, carnivals, hospital emergency rooms, and even private buildings available for public rental and entertainment. When the conduct occurs in private, courts have held that any conduct that disturbs others—typically neighbors—satisfies the public requirement. When the law doesn't require a public element, it's enough for the conduct to disrupt or disturb a single person's peace of mind.

What Are Examples of Disorderly Conduct?

Because of the differences in the laws defining disorderly conduct, what constitutes such conduct in one state may not count as disorderly in another. However, a range of behaviors often qualifies as disorderly conduct, regardless of the state or municipality in which it occurs.

  • Fighting. Many states and city prosecutors punish fighting, brawling, or physical scuffles as disorderly conduct, even though more serious charges of assault or battery may apply. However, the circumstances of each case often determine whether a prosecutor charges the accused with assault, battery, disorderly conduct, or more serious charges.
  • Disruptive protests. While engaging in peaceful protests is a constitutionally protected right, engaging in disruptive protests is not. For example, courts have held that participants in a sit-in demonstration engaged in disorderly conduct because they blocked traffic on a pedestrian walkway.
  • Disturbing an assembly. Interrupting a city council meeting, a public rally, or a religious ceremony can be enough to qualify as disorderly conduct.
  • Public misconduct. Engaging in what is normally private conduct in a public place is often charged as disorderly conduct. Public urination, public masturbation, and public intoxication can constitute disorderly conduct.
  • Police encounters. Many disorderly conduct charges arise from encounters people have with the police. For example, while arguing with a police officer does not count as disorderly conduct, arguing with police while engaging in threatening conduct or using any type of physical contact does. A person who fails to comply with a police order to move away from a public area also doesn't typically engage in disorderly conduct, unless the police officer issued the order in a situation where crowd control was an issue.

Some states may also classify certain behavior as its own offense, such as public intoxication or resisting arrest.

What Are Common Defenses to Disorderly Conduct Charges?

A person charged with disorderly conduct has the typical defense of, "It wasn't me." The defense attorney may also try to poke holes in the prosecution's case by stating the elements weren't proven. For instance, the attorney may argue the behavior wasn't offensive or disruptive, nor was it the type of behavior that would alarm a reasonable person.

Because disorderly conduct crimes cover a broad range of activities, they tend to be subject to frequent constitutional challenges. For instance, an overbroad statute that prohibits constitutional conduct (such as First Amendment rights) may be found unconstitutional. Or if the language of the law is so vague that a person wouldn't know what conduct is prohibited, the law can be challenged as unconstitutionally vague.

    Penalties: Is Disorderly Conduct a Misdemeanor or a Felony?

    Disorderly conduct is almost always punished as a misdemeanor offense, though it qualifies as a felony in certain circumstances, such as when a person makes a false report of a fire. State laws differ in the potential penalties involved for a conviction of disorderly conduct, but they typically include one or more of the following.

    Jail Time

    Jail time for a conviction of disorderly conduct is typically short, though state laws can allow for up to a year for a misdemeanor conviction. While many disorderly conduct convictions involve no jail time, especially for first-time offenders, courts often suspend a jail sentence or order a person to "time served," meaning the jail sentence is satisfied by the time the person already spent in jail after the initial arrest.

    For repeat offenders or more serious instances of disorderly conduct, short jail terms of several days, weeks, or even months are possible. Felony convictions bring with them the possibility of a year or more in state prison.

    Probation

    Probation sentences are a common sentence for disorderly conduct charges. A court can sentence a person convicted of disorderly conduct to several months or more of probation. If the person violates probation by, for example, committing another act of disorderly conduct, the court will likely impose a more significant penalty, such as a jail term or a higher fine.

    Fines and Restitution

    Fines are a very common punishment for disorderly conduct convictions. Fines range widely, from as little as $25 to $1,000 or more. In many situations, courts impose a fine instead of jail or probation, though a fine may also be included with any jail or probation sentence. If any property was damaged, the judge may also order the defendant to pay restitution (compensation) to the victim.

    Disorderly Conduct Laws in Selected States

    Click the link to your state below to get state-specific information for disorderly conduct laws and penalties.

    Legal Advice

    Disorderly conduct may seem like a minor charge, but it can have serious consequences on a person's life. If you've been charged with disorderly conduct, it's important to speak to a qualified attorney in your area. Only an attorney who has experience with the local courts, police, and laws is qualified to provide you legal advice about the charges you face.

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