The word breach means to violate or disrupt something. Breach of the peace is a criminal offense that varies from state-to-state. In general, the legal phrase, “breach of the peace” means to disrupt the level of calm or quietness that is expected in a public — and sometimes private — place.
Across the United States, different names may be used to label this crime. These terms include: disorderly conduct, creating a public disturbance, or disturbing the peace. These various terms generally mean the same thing in cities, towns, and counties across the United States.
In order to commit the crime of breaching the peace, the act typically must be purposeful and/or malicious (ill-natured).
Some examples include:
- Fighting or threatening to fight in a public place;
- Shouting obscenities and threats in public;
- Playing music loudly after certain hours in a neighborhood setting; and
- A neighbor’s dog constantly barking.
Some of these scenarios — like a neighbor’s dog barking through the night — allow for warnings to be given first, before any legal action might be taken.
There are some instances that do not rise to the level of being considered to be a breach of the peace.
Examples of this include:
- Running or bumping into someone by accident in public;
- Gesturing with hands;
- Harmless pranks, jokes or goofing around; and
- Unintentionally annoying someone.
The idea behind the law is to protect the safety and rights of citizens to be able to enjoy a reasonable expectation of peacefulness while in public or while in their homes.
The laws for breaching the peace are often written broadly to encompass many different forms of alleged, rowdy behavior. This in turn, allows law enforcement officials to stop, lessen, or prevent situations from possibly getting further out of control.
If the police determine that a breach of the peace occurred, depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances, the individual or individuals inciting the breach may:
- Be asked to leave the premises;
- Be issued a warning;
- Be issued a citation; or
- Be arrested.
A breach of the peace offense is considered a misdemeanor in most jurisdictions. A judge will consider all the factors when determining what severity of punishment should be given for the crime.
Possible penalties include:
- Jail time: Misdemeanor offenses carry a maximum time of one year behind bars in a county prison. Most misdemeanor offenses carry less — if any — jail time;
- Fines: Monetary fines for misdemeanors may be imposed by the court and typically range between $100-$1000;
- Community service: Sometimes judges will impose that the defendant give back to the community by conducting different services. Community service jobs can entail working at a homeless shelter, assisting in a local clean up project or beautifying a local park.
- Probation: A judge may impose a time period up to one year where the defendant is on probation and must follow the terms of the probation during that time frame.
A breach of the peace charge is sometimes used as a plea bargain deal. In some circumstances when an individual faces charges of a more serious crime — like a felony charge — the prosecution may lessen the offense and instead charge the person with a breach of the peace misdemeanor, as a plea deal.
It is possible for someone facing breach of the peace charges to claim self-defense as a viable reason why they may have been involved in, for example, a public brawl.
Another defense that may be asserted is that the individual’s actions did not rise to the level of the actual crime. This may be the case for instance if a person threatened to hit and fight another person and afterwards claims that there was no threat and the fighting words were actually a bad joke.
It is often difficult to distinguish what is and what is not a breach of the peace. That is why a judge needs to review all the information and circumstances surrounding the case.
The right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, may also be used a possible defense to a breach of the peace crime.
As noted above, the laws and names of the crime vary from place to place. No matter where you live, the ability to distinguish a breach of the peace violation can be tricky. It is, therefore, important to speak to a criminal law attorney that has breach of the peace experience in your hometown.
That way, you are able to determine if there is in fact a violation in your circumstances. And, if there is a violation, you will be guided by your lawyer to figure out the best plan of action to take for your particular case.