In Massachusetts, laws against disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace criminalize fighting, being noisy and annoying in public, and other behavior that is likely to alarm, upset, or provoke others. While states and municipalities differ on what constitutes disorderly conduct, sometimes called "breach of the peace," these laws and regulations all target behavior that disturbs public tranquility and order.
For more general information on the crime of disorderly conduct, see Disorderly Conduct Laws and Penalties.
Under Massachusetts's laws, it is a crime to be a "disorderly person." People are disorderly if they engage in fighting, threats, or violent or excessively noisy behavior, or create dangerous or offensive conditions without good reason, and in order to inconvenience, annoy, or alarm others. (Commonwealth v. Sinai, 47 Mass. App. Ct. 544 (1999).)
People who get into bar fights or leave garbage and human waste in public parks could be arrested for disorderly conduct.
It is also a crime of disorderly conduct to:
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 53 (2023);
Although the disorderly conduct law makes it illegal to annoy another with offensive and disorderly language, the law has its limits. Massachusetts courts have generally held that merely yelling obscenities is protected by the right to free speech under the First Amendment. So just swearing loudly and repeatedly in public, no matter how annoying or offensive, isn't normally a crime.
But speech can become a crime when it endangers others, or amounts to a threat or "fighting words" (speech likely to provoke a violent response). The classic example is falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded building because it creates a danger of people stampeding out and injuring others. Other examples include credibly threatening to physically hurt someone.
Further, Massachusetts courts have found that some types of language and images, even if not overtly threatening, can be "inherently" threatening. For example, in one case, a female high school student's ex-boyfriend snuck into her school and posted flyers depicting her picture. The flyer contained aggressive, sexually explicit statements about the girl, which caused her severe distress. Although the flyer didn't make any express threat, the court found the speech was inherently threatening, so it wasn't protected under the First Amendment and was disorderly conduct.
(Commonwealth v. Chou, 433 Mass. 229 (2001).)
For more information on prostitution and related crimes, see Prostitution, Pimping, and Pandering Laws in Massachusetts. For information on other ways threatening speech can be prosecuted, see Criminal Threats: Laws and Penalties.
As in most other states, several types of conduct that can bother people are crimes in Massachusetts. Here are some of them.
Under Massachusetts's laws, it's a crime to be a "disturber of the peace." Someone disturbs the peace by being disruptive in or near a public place where others are bothered. Here's an example: In one case, the defendant was guilty of disturbing the peace because she was blaring music "at full blast" at night and yelling obscenities out the window, despite neighbors' complaints.
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 53 (2023); Commonwealth v. Mullins, 31 Mass.App.Ct. 954 (1991).)
Participating in a riot is also illegal. Under Massachusetts law, a riot is a tumultuous (very loud) or violent gathering of ten or more people, or five or more people who are armed, if they're bent on criminal activity. In Massachusetts, it's also a crime to refuse an officer's order to disperse or help suppress a riot.
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269 § § 1, 2 (2023).)
In Massachusetts, public intoxication isn't a crime, but people who are drunk in public may be taken into protective custody.
For more information, see Public Intoxication Laws.
Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace carry a fine of no more than $150. But a second (and subsequent) conviction can be punished by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $200, or both.
Being a prostitute and similar disorderly conduct crimes are also punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $200, or both.
Participating in a riot and refusing to disperse is punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of $100 to $500, or both.
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269 § 2, ch. 272, § 53 (2023).)
Many defenses could apply to a disorderly conduct charge or related offense. For example, the person might have the common defense of, "It wasn't me." Maybe the witness misidentified the person, or the police just arrested the wrong person.
The defense attorney may also try to poke holes in the prosecution's case by arguing the elements of the crime weren't proven. For instance, the attorney may argue the behavior wasn't offensive or disruptive, or wasn't the type of behavior that would accost or annoy a reasonable person.
Or, if the conduct involves what the defendant said (or more likely yelled), there might be an argument that the speech was protected by the First Amendment.
If you're charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, or any other crime in Massachusetts, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and how to prepare your case to obtain the best possible outcome.