Disorderly Conduct in Massachusetts

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.

Disorderly Conduct

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, 714 N.E.2d 830, 47 Mass. App. Ct. 544 (1999).) For example, 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 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.

For example, a jilted boyfriend who creates a “Missing Person” flyer for his ex-girlfriend with her photograph and sexual language and posts the flyer at her school could be prosecuted for accosting or annoying another with offensive and disorderly acts.

For more information on prostitution and related crimes, see Prostitution, Pimping, and Pandering Laws in Massachusetts.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 53.)

Disturbing the Peace

Under Massachusetts’s laws, it is also a crime to be a “disturber of the peace." A person disturbs the peace by being disruptive in or near a public place where others are bothered. Yelling and throwing bottles outside of a bar when there are other patrons present would probably be considered disturbing the peace.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 53.)

Free Speech

In Massachusetts, courts have generally held that the yelling of obscenities, not amounting to “fighting words,” is protected by the federal constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment. Fighting words are those likely to provoke a violent response. For example, merely yelling that a passing marching band “sucks” would not, without more, constitute disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace.

Riot and Failure to Disperse

Participating in a riot is also illegal. Under Massachusetts's laws, A riot is a noisy or violent gathering of ten or more people, or five or more people who are armed, bent on causing trouble, such as injuring someone, damaging property, or committing a crime. For example, a group of a dozen thugs who use a protest march as an excuse to vandalize and damage store fronts might be considered rioters. In Massachusetts, it is also a crime to refuse a law officer’s order to disperse or help suppress a riot.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269 § § 1, 2.)

Public Intoxication

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

For more information, see Massachusetts Public Intoxication Laws.

Punishment

Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace are punishable by a fine of no more than $150. Second and subsequent convictions are punishable 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 are 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.)

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are 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 you case to obtain the best possible outcome.

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