Disorderly Conduct in Texas

Texas has extensive laws prohibiting disorderly conduct (sometimes called disturbing the peace). Generally, disorderly conduct laws criminalize behavior that is likely to upset, scare, offend, or annoy others, or endanger or disturb the community. Examples of disorderly conduct include fighting in public, indecent exposure, being a “Peeping Tom,” protesting a funeral, or harassing a 911 operator.

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

Disorderly Conduct

In Texas, the crime of disorderly conduct can be committed by

  • using obscene or abusive language or making an offensive gesture or display that tends to provoke a violent reaction or upset the community's peace and quiet (“fighting words”)
  • creating a chemical, noxious odor in a public place
  • threatening or abusing another person in a public place, without provocation
  • making excessive noise in a public place or in or near someone else’s private residence
  • fighting in public
  • discharging a firearm in public, or on or across a public road, unless it is a response to a dangerous wild animal
  • displaying a firearm or weapon in public in a way that is intended to alarm or upset others
  • exposing one’s private parts in public without regard to whether others might be upset or offended, or
  • looking into someone’s home, hotel room, or a public restroom, shower, or dressing room for a lewd or unlawful purpose.

So, yelling threats or racial slurs on Sixth Street in Austin could be considered disorderly conduct. Fighting or setting off a stink bomb at a Houston Astros game could also be considered disorderly conduct.

Children who are in the sixth grade or a lower grade cannot be charged with disorderly conduct as a result of using offensive language or gestures, fighting, or making threats or noise or offensive odors at school. But a high school student who creates a noisy disturbance at school could be prosecuted.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 42.01.)

Funeral Picketing

In the wake of funeral protests by extremist groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, states have enacted laws prohibiting picketing at funerals. In Texas, it is a crime to picket (display posters or signs, make noise, or block access to a service) within 1,000 feet of a memorial service during the service or within three hours of the start or finish of a service.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 42.055.)

Rioting

It is also a crime in Texas to participate in a riot (a gathering of seven or more people that creates an immediate danger of injury or property damage, obstructs law enforcement or other government services, disturbs anyone or deprives them of their legal rights by force, threats, or physical action). For example, a violent clash between Ku Klux Klan members and the public could be considered a riot.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 42.02.)

Obstructing Roads and Disrupting Meetings

Texas law also prohibits blocking a street, highway, or sidewalk; blocking an entrance or exit that the public normally uses; or disobeying a request to move by a police officer, fireman, or person in charge of the premises. It is also a crime to intentionally interfere with or disrupt a lawful meeting, gathering, or procession. For example, a protester who refuses to move from a public sidewalk could also be arrested for obstruction.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § § 42.03, 42.05.)

False Alarm

It is also a crime in Texas to make silent, abusive, or harassing calls to 911; or report a bomb, fire, crime, or emergency, knowing that the report is false and that the report would likely result in an emergency response, evacuations, or fear of bodily injury. So, a teenager who calls 911 as a joke and says nothing could face arrest and prosecution.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § § 42.06, 42.061.)

Public Intoxication

Under Texas law, people that appear in public while so intoxicated that they could endanger themselves or others commit the crime of public intoxication. (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 49.02.)

For more information, see Texas Public Intoxication Laws.

Free Speech

Defendants have claimed that the state’s law against disorderly conduct is so broad and vague that it infringes on their federal constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment. Generally, these challenges have not been successful. However, if conduct that constitutes making excessive noise, obstructing a road, or funeral picketing could also be considered constitutionally protected as free speech or free assembly, and the defendant has not intentionally caused anyone harm, then under Texas law a police officer or other public official must ask the defendant to stop or move before making an arrest.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 42.04.)

Punishment

Discharging a firearm in public (but not on or across a public road) and displaying a firearm are Class C misdemeanors, punishable by a fine of up to $500 but no jail time. Other types of disorderly conduct (including discharging a firearm on a public road) are Class B misdemeanors, as are funeral picketing, obstructing a highway, disrupting a meeting, and making silent or abusive 911 calls. Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both. Usually, rioting is a class B misdemeanor, although it can be charged as a more serious crime if other rioters engage in more serious crimes.

False alarm is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $4,000, or both jail time and a fine, unless the report involves a school or public service (such as public transit or a city's water supply), in which case the crime is a state prison felony, punishable by 180 days to two years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

(Tex. Penal Code Ann. § § 42.01, 42.02, 42.03, 42.05, 42.055, 42.06, 42.061.)

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Although disorderly conduct and similar crimes may carry relatively minor penalties, any criminal conviction can have lasting consequences. In addition to time in jail or prison, a fine, or both a fine and incarceration, a criminal conviction record is potentially available to potential employers and others. If you are charged with any crime or have questions about criminal law, you should consult with a Texas attorney experienced in criminal defense. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and help you protect your rights.

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