Disorderly Conduct in Pennsylvania

Fighting or yelling obscenities in public could get you arrested for disorderly conduct. Learn how Pennsylvania penalizes behavior that disturbs the peace.

By | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

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 isn't intended to criminalize behavior that is irritating or obnoxious, but only behavior that disrupts the public peace. 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.

What Is Disorderly Conduct in Pennsylvania?

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 or making obscene gestures, or
  • creating a dangerous or physically offensive condition without good reason.

Intent. 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 doing so.

Public. Under this statute, "public" refers to any place that is open to the public, such as a park, school, 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. Or a fraternity member who plays loud music late into the night, intentionally inconveniencing his neighbors, could also be arrested. However, two people who get into an argument in their own home have not committed disorderly conduct so long as they do not disturb people outside of the home.

What Is the Punishment for Disorderly Conduct in Pennsylvania?

Disorderly conduct is a summary offense, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The penalty increases to a third-degree misdemeanor if the defendant causes harm or serious inconvenience or continues the behavior after being asked to stop. A person convicted of a misdemeanor in the third degree faces up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5503.)

Other Pennsylvania Crimes Related to Disturbing the Peace

Pennsylvania also makes it a crime to obstruct public passageways, disrupt gatherings, riot, or be extremely intoxicated in public.

Obstructing Public Passages and Disrupting Meetings

It's a crime in Pennsylvania to intentionally or recklessly:

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

For instance, 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 being asked to do so by a police officer.

A person convicted of obstructing a passageway faces up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for a summary offense. If the person continues to violate the law despite a police warning, the crime is a misdemeanor in the third degree, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Disrupting a lawful meeting is also a third-degree misdemeanor. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 5507, 5508.)

Rioting

Pennsylvania makes it a felony in the third degree to engage in a riot. Rioting occurs when someone engages in a course of disorderly conduct with two or more other people, under the following conditions:

  • intending to commit or facilitate a crime
  • intending to obstruct or coerce official action, or
  • using or intending to use a weapon or knowing another participant plans to use a weapon.

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.

A person convicted of a third-degree felony faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5501.)

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 misdemeanor in the second degree. 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.

A misdemeanor in the second degree carries up to two years' incarceration and a fine of up to $5,000. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5502.)

Public Intoxication

Pennsylvania makes public intoxication (by alcohol or drugs) a crime when the person poses a danger to themself or others, to property, or of annoying others. Public drunkenness is a summary offense, punishable by a maximum $500 fine for a first offense and up to $1,000 in fines for subsequent offenses. A drunken person who is threatening to fight others in a bar could be convicted of public drunkenness. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5505.)

Defenses to Disorderly Conduct Charges in Pennsylvania

Like any crime, defense attorneys work to poke holes in the prosecutor's case. In disorderly conduct cases, a defendant might argue that the prosecutor didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's behavior rose to the level of disruptive or that the defendant was in a public place.

Another common defense in disorderly conduct and related cases is that the law violates the person's constitutional right to free speech. Or that the law is so broad or vague that it infringes on other constitutionally protected rights.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Being charged with any crime, even a summary offense, can result in time in jail, fines, and a criminal record. A criminal record can make it difficult to obtain a job or pass a background check. If you're charged with a crime, contact a local 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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