What is disturbing the peace?

Disturbing the peace charges occur when a person infringes upon or frustrates someone else's right to peace. In most states, disturbing the peace convictions require that the person's conduct have a malicious purpose. If the disturbing the peace offense is charged as an infraction, it will not go on an individual's permanent record or show up on an employment background check.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Disturbing the peace charges occur when an individual has infringed upon or frustrated someone else’s right to peace and tranquility. Breach of peace laws are generally regulated by local ordinances or state statutes and vary greatly depending on the location of the crime. Depending on the place of the offense and the conduct associated with the offense, disturbing the peace can be charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor. Punishments for disturbance of the peace can amount to a jail sentence, fines, or both.

What sort of conduct constitutes disturbing the peace?

Disturbing the peace charges in most states require that the person’s conduct be willful or have an otherwise malicious purpose. Willful conduct means that the person’s actions were done with intent, or on purpose. For example, a person can be charged with disturbing the peace when he is protesting at an unlawful assembly, involved in a domestic dispute or battery, fighting or challenging someone to fight in public, or using language intended to incite violence.

Seemingly innocent but annoying conduct can also be grounds for a disturbing the peace arrest if the person has notice of his disruptive behavior and refuses to cease. In other words, when a person refuses to change his behavior after fair warning, he may be charged with disturbing the peace.

For example, suppose an individual has a birthday party at his house, and plays music loudly into the night. While the loud music may disrupt his neighbors, this is most likely not his intention. If the police arrived at his door and charged him with disturbance of the peace at this point, the individual will likely be able to show the court that his conduct was not willful, and in this case, the charge stemming from the unreasonable noise will not be sustained. Now suppose that when the law enforcement officer arrives at his door and tells him that they have received several complaints about the loud noise, and warn him that he must turn it down. If the individual continues to keep his music loud after this warning, his once innocent conduct has become willful, and there is now reason for a police officer to come back and serve him with a disturbance of the peace charge for the unreasonable noise.

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What are some defenses to disturbing the peace charges?

One common defense to disturbing the peace is that the behavior in question did not rise to the level of the offense. This defense is used because a disturbance of the peace charge is very subjective: the police generally decide for themselves if the conduct in question amounts to a disturbance of the peace. If an individual’s conduct in public is simply obnoxious, annoying, or speech that embarrasses someone, this is usually not enough on its own to sustain a breach of peace charge. Further, because this offense is subjective, there is a lot of room for a criminal defense attorney to argue that the circumstances of the conduct did not meet the level required for the charge.

Other defenses to breach of peace charges include denial of the disorderly conduct, self-defense or defense of others, or invoking the protections of the First Amendment. The defense of self-defense or defense of others usually arises in the context of fighting in public. For example, if one person starts a fight, and the other person merely defends themself, and both are placed under arrest, the one who simply defended himself in the fight will claim self-defense to overcome the charge. A First Amendment defense is used in situations where the offender admits to the conduct in question, such as offensive language in public, but is protected by his constitutional right to freedom of speech.

What are the possible consequences of a conviction?

If the disturbing the peace offense is charged as an infraction, it will generally not go on an individual’s permanent record, and will therefore not show up on an employment background check. However, some states charge a breach of peace offense as a misdemeanor, which will stay on an individual’s permanent criminal record, and may affect employment opportunities. Further, depending on the conduct involved, the other offenses committed with the disturbing the peace charges, and prior offenses committed by the individual, some courts have the discretion to charge the offense as either an infraction or a misdemeanor.

In either case, the penalties the individual will be subject to include fines, and if the disturbance of the peace offense is charged as a misdemeanor, there may also be county jail time involved.

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