Disorderly Conduct in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, disorderly conduct can include making obscene gestures, screaming, and urinating in public. Generally, disorderly conduct laws criminalize behavior that is likely to upset, anger, or annoy others.

In Pennsylvania, disorderly conduct can include making obscene gestures, screaming, and urinating in public. Generally, disorderly conduct laws criminalize behavior that is likely to upset, anger, or annoy others. However, Pennsylvania’s disorderly conduct law is not intended to criminalize any behavior that is irritating or obnoxious, but only behavior that disrupts the peace and quiet of the community. Pennsylvania also has laws against disrupting meetings and rioting.

For more general information on the crime of disorderly conduct, see Disorderly Conduct Laws and Penalties.

Disorderly Conduct

In Pennsylvania, a person commits the crime of disorderly conduct by:

  • fighting or engaging in threatening or violent behavior
  • making excessive noise
  • using obscene language
  • making an obscene gesture, or
  • creating a dangerous or physically offensive condition without good reason.

In order to be convicted of disorderly conduct, the prosecutor must show that the defendant intended to cause “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm,” or disregarded the risk of inconveniencing, annoying, or upsetting others. Under this statute, “public” refers to any place that is open to the public, such as a park, school, or business, or even the streets of a gated neighborhood. For example, a person who walks through a public park surrounded by homes at night, yelling obscenities and upsetting nearby residents, could be arrested for disorderly conduct. A fraternity member who plays loud music late into the night, intentionally inconveniencing his neighbors could also arrested. However, two people who get into a fight in their own home have not committed disorderly conduct so long as they do not disturb people outside of the home. Disorderly conduct is punished more severely if the defendant causes harm or serious inconvenience or continues in his or her behavior after being asked to stop. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 5503.)

It is also a crime in Pennsylvania to:

  • block a road, sidewalk, or other thoroughfare
  • refuse an official request to move away from the scene of an emergency or stop blocking a highway or sidewalk or other thoroughfare, or
  • disrupt or interrupt a lawful meeting or gathering.

(18 Pa. Con. Stat. § § 5507, 5508.) So, a person who yells and refuses to sit down or be quiet at a PTA meeting could be arrested and convicted of a crime, as could a person who refuses to move away from a fire after a being asked to do so by a police officer.

Failure to Disperse

Anytime three or more people are engaging in a course of disorderly conduct likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance, or upset, a police officer or public official in Pennsylvania can order the people (as well as any bystanders nearby) to disperse. Failing to disperse after being ordered to do so is a crime. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 5502.) For example, a group of Philadelphia high school students that engage in a brawl could be ordered to disperse, as could any other students who are nearby, watching the fight.

Rioting

A person is guilty of participating in a riot if he or she engages in a course of disorderly conduct with two or more other people, intending to commit a crime, obstruct or coerce official action, or when the defendant plans to use a weapon, or knows that another participant plans to use a weapon. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 5501.) For example, many people were arrested for rioting after thousands of Penn State students took to the streets, throwing bottles and rocks and damaging cars and street signs, to protest the dismissal of football coach Joe Paterno in the wake of the sex abuse scandal there.

Free Speech

Generally, claims that Pennsylvania’s laws against disorderly conduct and related crimes are so broad and vague that they infringe on the federal constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment have been unsuccessful.

Public Intoxication

In Pennsylvania, a person commits the crime of public drunkenness by appearing so intoxicated (by alcohol or drugs) in public that the person poses a danger to him or herself, to property, or of annoying others. So, a drunken person who is threatening to fight others in a bar could be convicted of public drunkenness. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 5505.)

For more information, see Pennsylvania Public Intoxication Laws.

Punishment

Disorderly conduct, obstructing a road or sidewalk, refusing to move, and disrupting a meeting are summary offenses in Pennsylvania (punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500), or misdemeanors of the third degree (punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500).

Failure to disperse is a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable by as much as two years' incarceration and a fine of up to $5,000.

Participating in a riot is a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to ten years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines. Public drunkenness is punishable by a fine of up to $500. Subsequent offenses are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § § 5501, 5502, 5503, 5505, 5507, 5508.)

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Being charged with any crime, even a summary offense, can result in time in jail, fines, and a criminal record. Additionally, a criminal record can make it difficult to obtain a job or pass a background check. If you are charged with a crime, you should contact a Pennsylvania 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, such as a dismissal, reduction of the charges, or a favorable verdict or sentence.

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