In legal terms, disturbing the peace is a criminal offense occurring when a person does some sort of disorderly conduct in public. Common examples would include:
- Causing excessive noise;
- Disrupting funeral services;
- Being drunk in public; or
- Threatening to fight in public.
To put it simply, disturbing the peace happens when a person’s conduct or word of conduct interferes with the public right to peace. Disturbing the peace may also occur when a person is playing music at excessively loud volumes, either out in public or within their own home. This is generally associated with the use of stereo equipment in a home or in a vehicle. Playing loud music would be considered disturbing the peace if the city enforces a specific noise ordinance.
Disturbing the peace is sometimes also referred to as disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct is an umbrella term covering many different actions, from public urination to peeping into someone else’s window. The term is generally viewed as a “catch-all” charge for actions that are considered to be obnoxious or annoying, and cause some type of public disturbance.
The defining difference between disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct would be the severity of punishment. In California, disorderly conduct violations are generally always considered to be misdemeanor crimes, while disturbing the peace can either be charged as a misdemeanor or civil infraction. The penalties associated with disturbing the peace in California will be further discussed later on.
How Is “Disturbing The Peace” Defined In California?
The purpose of laws associated with disturbing the peace is to reduce instances of people doing chaotic or criminal acts in public. Each state has its own laws which clarify what actions constitute disturbing the peace, as well as what legal penalties violators may face.
California outlines disturbing the peace as doing one, some, or all of the following:
- Using offensive language in public that is inherently likely to provoke an immediate and violent reaction in public (or, fighting words);
- Unlawfully fighting or challenging someone to fight in a public place; and
- Willfully and maliciously disturbing someone by making unreasonable and loud noises, or noise that is loud enough to disturb someone else.
Because disturbing the peace is so similar to disorderly conduct, it is useful to explore how California defines disorderly conduct violations. California’s disorderly conduct criminal statute defines some specific actions, which include but may not be limited to:
- Prostitution, which includes the solicitation of prostitution;
- Begging for money or goods, or panhandling;
- Hanging around someone else’s property without their authorization, or loitering;
- Peeking into an inhabited building while on private property, and without authorization;
- Public intoxication;
- Squatting on someone else’s property without their permission;
- Lewd public conduct, such as exposing your genitals to someone else; and
- Secretly recording or viewing someone else’s body by invading their privacy.
It is important to note that many of these crimes must take place in public in order for them to be considered disorderly conduct violations. An example of this would be how it is not considered to be disorderly conduct if you are intoxicated in your own home, as long as you do not commit other crimes. However, if you were to be drunk on a public street, you could be arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct.
Similar to disorderly conduct, acts which could be considered disturbing the peace are generally committed in a public place. However, in some specific circumstances, you could be charged for being purposefully loud in your own home. An example of this would be if your loud music persists past your apartment building’s quiet hours.
What Is Disturbing The Peace Of School Grounds?
California specifically maintains a second category of disturbing the peace, which is disturbing the peace of school grounds. School grounds are defined as being any:
- State university; or
- Community college.
A person who is not a student or employee of any of these facilities may be charged with disturbing the peace if they are acting in any of the previously mentioned ways.
According to California Penal Code 415.5, if you are charged with disturbing the peace on school grounds it will be charged as a misdemeanor. This will likely result in a maximum 90-day jail sentence, as well as a $400 fine. If you have been previously convicted of disturbing the peace on school grounds, or were previously convicted of any crime that took place on school grounds, you could face a minimum of three months in county jail as well as a maximum fine of $1,000.
What Is The Punishment For Disturbing The Peace In California? Will It Result In a Criminal Record?
Depending on the circumstances of your specific case, as well as your past criminal history, disturbing the peace will generally result in an infraction or a misdemeanor charge. An infraction is usually punishable by a fine of no more than $250. A misdemeanor conviction, however, is punishable by up to three months in county jail as well as a maximum fine of $400.
Although disturbing the peace is largely considered to be one of the most minor offenses, misdemeanor disturbing the peace conviction in California can appear on your criminal record. This is especially true if the charge is combined with other offenses, such as a violent offense or repeated offenses.
What Else Should I Know About Disturbing The Peace In California?
As previously mentioned, California recognizes three ways in which you can disturb the peace in the state. The prosecution will need to prove specific elements of whichever way you are being charged with.
- Unlawful Fighting: The prosecution must prove that you wilfully and unlawfully fought another person, or challenged another person to a fight. Additionally, they must prove that the fight took place on public property, and not private property.
- Loud And Unreasonable Noise: The prosecution must prove that you both wilfully and maliciously caused loud and unreasonable noise. Additionally, they must prove that the noise actually disturbed another person.
- Use Of Offensive Language: The prosecution must prove that you used offensive words, which inherently are likely to provoke an immediate and violent reaction. Additionally, they must prove that these words or language were spoken in a public place.
If you are being charged with disturbing the peace in California, there are some potential defenses that you may claim:
- Your intent does not meet state requirements, meaning you did not act “wilfully, maliciously, or with the intent of inciting violence”;
- You were actually acting in self defense;
- Your speech is protected by the First Amendment; and/or
- You were falsely accused and wrongfully arrested.
Do I Need An Attorney For Disturbing The Peace Charges In California?
If you are being charged with disturbing the peace in California, whether as a misdemeanor or disturbing the peace of school grounds, you will need to consult with an experienced California criminal lawyer. An attorney can help you understand California’s laws regarding disturbing the peace, and how those laws may affect your legal options moving forward.
A local lawyer will help gather evidence to support your case, protect your rights, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed. Your criminal defense attorney can also determine whether any legal defenses are available to you based on the specifics of your case.