Disorderly Conduct in California

California's disorderly conduct laws ban a lot of activity that causes a public disturbance, including fighting, soliciting prostitutes, and secretly recording private things.

By , Attorney · Golden Gate University School of Law
Updated November 17, 2023

In California, the crime of disorderly conduct targets behaviors like soliciting a prostitute, peeking into dressing rooms, and being drunk in public. California also makes it a crime to engage in many other types of public conduct that disturb the peace. This article discusses disorderly conduct and related offenses in California only. To learn more about disorderly conduct in general, see Disorderly Conduct Laws and Penalties.

What Is Disorderly Conduct in California?

California's disorderly conduct law bans people from engaging in the following types of conduct.

Engaging in or Soliciting Lewd Acts in Public

It's illegal to commit, or try to get someone else to commit, lewd acts in public or in an area exposed to public view. (Certain sexual acts or sexual exposures might also be punished under other criminal laws, such as California's indecent exposure statute.)

Soliciting or Committing Acts of Prostitution

In California, asking for or agreeing to sex for money is a disorderly conduct offense. In California, minors who agree to provide sex for money can't be prosecuted, but they can be made a dependent of the court and placed in protective custody. And "johns" who solicit minors for prostitution are subject to harsher penalties than those who solicit adults.

Accosting to Beg or Solicit Alms

Aggressive panhandling is a crime in California. Although merely sitting or standing and asking for money or food isn't considered disorderly conduct, walking up to someone while begging can be a crime.

Public Intoxication

A person commits disorderly conduct by being so intoxicated in public that they endanger themselves or others, or obstruct a sidewalk, street, or other public way. Being intoxicated on legal substances like alcohol can lead to civil protective custody (a stint in the "drunk tank"), but no criminal prosecution. On the other hand, being high on illegal drugs can lead to public intoxication charges.

Loitering

Disorderly conduct can include loitering for a certain type of illegal purpose. For example, it's illegal to hang around public bathrooms to solicit or engage in lewd acts. It's also a crime to loiter on private property for the purpose of committing a crime (often called "casing").

Unauthorized Lodging

Lodging in any public or private space without permission, or in a building or vehicle without the owner's consent (often called "squatting") is a disorderly conduct offense in California.

Certain Types of Privacy Invasion

Peeking into doors or windows of private property (the "peeping Tom" scenario) is a disorderly conduct crime. It's also illegal to look into, or secretly film or photograph, any space where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a bathroom or dressing room. And it's a crime to film or photograph underneath someone's clothing without their consent (such as the creepy practice of "upskirting"—photographing or filming under an unsuspecting female's skirt). Finally, it's a disorderly conduct offense to distribute sexual images of someone who expected them to remain private (often called "revenge porn"). Sharing such images is a crime so long as the person knew or should have known that it would cause the victim emotional distress.

(Cal. Penal Code § 647 (2023).)

What Is the Punishment for Disorderly Conduct in California?

Disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor in California For most offenses, penalties include up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. Increased penalties may apply to second and subsequent convictions for disorderly conduct.

Certain offenses involving people under 18 increase the potential penalties. For example, when the victim of a privacy invasion offense is a minor, the defendant faces up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Soliciting prostitution from a minor also carries up to a year in jail, as well as a hefty potential fine of up to $10,000. (And engaging in prostitution with a minor can lead to much more serious charges of child molestation or statutory rape.)

(Cal. Penal Code § 647 (2023).)

Other California Crimes Related to Disturbing the Peace

Aside from the disorderly conduct statute, California has many other laws that relate to disturbing the peace. Here are some of the main ones.

Fighting, Noise, and Offensive Words

California law makes it a crime to:

  • fight or challenge someone to fight in a public place
  • use offensive words in a public place when they are likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction, or
  • intentionally disturb people with loud and unreasonable noise (such as blaring really loud music).

Fighting, noise, and offensive words are all misdemeanors. Penalties include a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both.

Special rules apply when the disturbance happens on school grounds. For example, students who fight at their school are not punished for disturbing the peace because a student's own school is not considered a public place, and it's left to the school to discipline student disruptions.

But non-students who fight on school grounds can be prosecuted. That said, the punishment is less severe than typical disturbing the peace offenses. Although the crime is still a misdemeanor, it carries a fine of up to $400 or up to 90 days in jail, or both. Increased penalties may apply to second and subsequent convictions.

Also, some school fights, even those by students of the school, might be prosecuted as assault or battery, such as when there's an injury or a weapon involved.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 415, 415.5 (2023); In re Fernando C., 227 Cal.App.4th 499 (2014).)

Rioting

In California, the crime of riot involves two or more people using or threatening to use unlawful force or violence in a public place. The people must have the immediate ability to carry through with the violence they threaten. It's also a crime to incite others to riot.

Inciting or participating in a riot is a misdemeanor, which carries up to 364 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. Inciting a riot in a jail or prison that results in serious bodily injury is a "wobbler," meaning it can be either a misdemeanor or felony. When the offense is a felony, a conviction can lead to a sentence of up to three years.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 404, 404.6, 405, 1170 (2023).)

Refusal to Disperse

In California, it's illegal for two or more people to assemble to disturb the peace and refuse to comply with a lawful order by a law enforcement officer to disperse.

Refusal to disperse is a misdemeanor. In addition to the standard misdemeanor punishment (up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine), penalties include paying restitution for any damage the person causes during the illegal assembly (broken store windows for example), or community service if they can't pay.

(Cal. Penal Code § 416 (2023).)

Defenses to Disorderly Conduct Charges in California

In any criminal case, the defense attorney's job is to poke holes in the prosecutor's case. In a disorderly conduct loitering case, for example, the defense might argue that the prosecutor didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had an unlawful purpose while loitering. Or, depending on the facts of the case, a defendant facing public lewd acts charges might be able to argue that he wasn't in a public place.

Another common defense in disorderly conduct and related cases is that the law violates the person's constitutional right to free speech or other constitutionally protected rights.

Getting Legal Advice

Even though misdemeanor offenses are less serious than felonies, they can have significant consequences, including jail time, expensive fines, and a criminal record. If you're charged with a crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can protect your rights as you navigate the criminal justice system and help you obtain the best possible outcome in your case. A good attorney will know whether dismissal or a reduction of the charges is possible, and can advise you on whether to shoot for a plea deal or fight the case at trial.

DEFEND YOUR RIGHTS
Talk to a Defense attorney
We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you