Minnesota's laws against disorderly conduct criminalize a variety of different behaviors, including fighting, yelling obscenities, and rioting. Laws against disorderly conduct, sometimes called disturbing the peace or breach of the peace, can vary from state to state, and many municipalities also have their own regulations. However, the general goal of disorderly conduct laws is to prohibit behavior that is likely to upset or annoy others or disturb the peace of the community.
In Minnesota, a person commits the crime of disorderly conduct by:
To secure a conviction, the prosecutor must show that the defendant had reason to know that the conduct would upset, anger or disturb others or provoke a breach of the peace.
An example of disorderly conduct would be getting into someone's face and saying something profane. However, context matters. What might be considered offensive or obscene in a church—such as yelling a curse word—may be perfectly acceptable in a raucous bar.
People convicted under Minnesota's disorderly conduct law have argued that its language is vague and overly broad and violates First Amendment rights. While not all constitutional challenges have prevailed, several court decisions have narrowed the statute's application.
For instance, a person cannot be convicted of disorderly conduct for conveying expressive speech that annoys some people. Rather, the court held that annoying and boisterous language must amount to fighting words or words that tend to incite an immediate breach of peace. (In re Welfare of S.L.J., 263 N.W.2d 412 (Minn. 1978).) And, in 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down part of the statute as unconstitutional. The court decided the prohibition of disrupting a meeting was overly broad and infringed on First Amendment rights. (State v. Hensel, 901 N.W.2d 166 (Minn. 2017).)
Minnesota addresses other acts of disturbing the peace under its laws prohibiting riots and unlawful assemblies.
Minnesota makes it a misdemeanor to participate in a gathering of three or more people when intending to disturb the public peace, commit an unlawful act by force, or act in a disorderly manner without having a lawful purpose. It's also a misdemeanor to refuse to leave an unlawful assembly when ordered to do so by police. Misdemeanor convictions carry up to 90 days of jail time and a $1,000 fine.
(Minn. Stat. §§ 609.705, 609.715 (2023).)
In Minnesota, a person can be charged with rioting if they gather with two or more people to disturb the peace by using or threatening to use force or violence against persons or property. Rioting starts as a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $3,000 fine. However, any participant who is armed with a deadly weapon, or knows another participant is armed, can face felony charges and up to five years of prison.
(Minn. Stat. § 609.71 (2023).)
Because disorderly conduct crimes cover a broad range of activities, they tend to be subject to frequent constitutional challenges, especially First Amendment challenges. Laws that prohibit lawful behavior (such as peaceful protests) may be deemed unconstitutionally overbroad. A law is also unconstitutional if its language is so vague that the average person doesn't know what conduct is prohibited.
Courts have already narrowed the application of Minnesota's disorderly conduct statute, finding that the law goes too far in certain settings. The same challenges may apply when a person is charged with unlawful assembly or rioting.
A defense attorney might also try to poke holes in the prosecution's case by stating the elements of a crime 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. If the prosecutor can't prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must acquit.
If you face criminal charges for disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, or rioting, speak with a criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can protect your rights, help you navigate the criminal system, and evaluate any defenses you might have.