The California disturbing the peace law specifically defines three kinds of conduct that give rise to this offense. The three kinds of conduct are as follows:

  • Challenging a person to a fight or fighting in public;
  • Intentionally disturbing other people with unreasonably loud noise; 
  • Using inherently offensive language of the sort that is likely to produce an immediate violent reaction. 

Engaging in any of these three types of conduct could lead to a charge of disturbing the peace.

Is There a Defense I Can Use If I Didn’t Mean to Disturb the Peace?

A person can be found guilty of disturbing the peace if he committed any one of the three types of conduct with the necessary intent. The conduct must have been done willfully and maliciously.  Something is done willfully if it is done intentionally or on purpose. An act is done maliciously if it is done with the intent to do something wrong or to injure or harm another person. 

For example, suppose a person involved in a dispute with his neighbor plays unreasonably loud music at night. Their neighbor complains to the police and seeks to have the person charged with disturbing the peace.

When the police arrive, the person explains that the family was only celebrating their son’s graduation from high school. He apologizes for the noise and promises to reduce the volume of the celebration. 

A charge of disturbing the peace might not succeed in this case. The person did not have a malicious intent for making loud noise. The family was celebrating the graduation of a family member. The family was not trying to harm any neighbors. 

The lack of malicious intent is also shown by the person’s apology and willingness to moderate the noise. There is probably not a case of disturbing the peace in this example. The necessary intent is missing.

On the other hand, if there is no evidence that the person had a good reason to make loud noise at night, the police might charge the person with disturbing the peace. Intentionally making loud noise in order to harm another person can be grounds for a finding of the offense.

Using inherently offensive language that is likely to produce a violent reaction is another type of conduct that can lead to a charge of disturbing the peace. Of course, the right to freedom of speech is guaranteed by The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thus, if a person uses inherently offensive language during a political protest, it might not be criminal under California law. 

A court could find that the person charged with disturbing the peace was taking part in a political protest when the offensive language was used. Therefore the person had a right to use offensive language. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects offensive speech if it is uttered in the context of a legitimate political protest. 

Note, however, that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech does not protect the person who uses inherently offensive language likely to produce a violent reaction in other situations.

The U.S. Constitution also guarantees citizens the right to freely exercise their religion. So, a possible defense to a charge of making unreasonably loud noise might be to claim that a noise disturbance was made while delivering a religious speech in public. This defense would be strengthened by showing that the defendant moderated the loudness of any public religious speech to the extent possible.

Can I Use the Defense of Being Falsely Accused of Breaching the Peace?

If the facts justify it, a person can claim that they were falsely accused of disturbing the peace.  For example, if a person has an ongoing dispute with a neighbor about use of a common driveway, the neighbor might try to get revenge by accusing the person of disturbing the peace.  

The neighbor might claim that the person directed unreasonably loud noise at his house in the middle of the night. The person accused can certainly claim that his neighbor has accused him falsely.  

If the person in fact did not direct loud noise at their neighbor’s house in the middle of the night, there would be no evidence to support the neighbor’s charge of disturbing the peace. This lack of evidence would strengthen the person’s defense of false accusation.

Is Self-Defense a Defense to Disturbing the Peace Charge in California?

A claim of self-defense  is also a defense to a charge of disturbing the peace. Success with a claim of self-defense depends on the person charged successfully showing the three elements of this defense. They are: 

  • Reasonable belief in imminent harm: the defendant reasonably believed that he, or another person, was about to suffer bodily harm;
  • Use of force is necessary: the defendant reasonably believed that use of force was necessary to protect himself; and
  • No more force than necessary:  the defendant used no more force than necessary to defend against the danger.

For example, suppose the defendant was at a local bar, when the ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend approached him and put his fists up as if he was preparing to punch him in the face. The defendant pushed the ex-boyfriend away from him to avoid being punched.  The ex-boyfriend fell against a bar stool and then to the ground. The bartender called the police.

The defendant could claim that he acted in self defense. He reasonably believed that the ex-boyfriend was about to punch him in the face. 

He also reasonably believed that he had to use force to protect himself. The landing of the punch by the ex-boyfriend was imminent and the defendant believed that talking or other steps would not resolve the problem. 

Finally, he used no more force than was necessary to defend against the danger of being punched. He did not use a weapon or otherwise over-react. He only pushed the ex-boyfriend away to avoid getting punched. Facts such as these could give rise to a successful claim of self-defense.  

On the other hand if the ex-boyfriend simply walked over to the defendant, perhaps wanting to chat, and the defendant pushed him away, causing him to stumble and fall, the court might find that the defendant did not act in self-defense. 

In this situation, the first element of self-defense is lacking. The defendant did not face a threat of imminent harm. The ex-boyfriend did not show that he was about to harm the defendant in any way.

If the defendant believed that he was about to suffer bodily harm, the defendant’s belief was not reasonable. A reasonable person would have seen that the ex-boyfriend approached him in order to chat. The ex-boyfriend did not make any aggressive gesture. It was not reasonable for the defendant to think that the ex-boyfriend was going to injure him.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer About My Case?

A person charged with the crime of disturbing the peace should talk to an experienced California criminal law attorney.. The punishment for this offense can be as much as 90 days in jail. A fine of up to $400 can be imposed. Or, the court might impose a sentence of jail time and a fine also. 

In order to avoid conviction and punishment for disturbing the peace, you want the representation of an experienced California criminal law attorney. Experienced attorneys can best represent a defendant’s interest. They know which defenses are available. They also know how to present them most effectively to the prosecutor and the court.

You want a knowledgeable attorney at your side for the best defense to a charge of disturbing the peace.