Disorderly Conduct in Massachusetts

Disorderly conduct and related crimes cover a wide range of conduct that bothers other people. Loud, obnoxious, or offensive behavior sometimes crosses the line and becomes criminal.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Kelly Martin, Attorney · Golden Gate University School of Law
Updated April 20, 2023

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.

What Is Disorderly Conduct in Massachusetts?

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. (Comm. v. Sinai, 47 Mass. App. Ct. 544 (1999).)

Examples of Disorderly Conduct

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:

  • be a prostitute
  • keep a house of prostitution
  • accost or annoy another with offensive and disorderly acts or language
  • engage in lewd speech or behavior in public, or
  • commit indecent exposure.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 53 (2023).)

Free Speech and Disorderly Conduct Laws

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 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.

Massachusetts courts have also 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.

(Comm. v. Chou, 433 Mass. 229 (2001).)

Other Crimes Related to Disorderly Conduct in Massachusetts

As in most other states, several types of conduct that can bother people are crimes in Massachusetts. Here are some of them.

Disturbing the Peace

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).)

Riot and Failure to Disperse

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).)

Public Intoxication

In Massachusetts, public intoxication isn't a crime, but people who are drunk in public may be taken into protective custody.

Penalties for Disorderly Conduct Crimes in Massachusetts

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).)

Defenses to Disorderly Conduct in Massachusetts

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.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

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.

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