Depending on state laws, disorderly conduct is a specific criminal offense or a catch-all offense addressing any behavior that is unreasonably disruptive or unruly. As you can imagine, members of the public breach the peace every day so it is probably the most commonly charged offense.

You can be charged with disorderly conduct if you recklessly or intentionally engage in noisy, offensive or violent behavior that disturbs the public or because you refuse to comply with the lawful order of the police to leave a particular location.

Disorderly conduct may also be called by other names such as breach of the peace or disturbing the peace. It may sometimes also be included within similar charges. Examples of specific behaviors that can lead to a charge of disorderly conduct include fighting, public drunkenness, unlawfully assembling, or loitering.

Disorderly conduct is a less serious criminal offense than assault or battery , so the police are more likely to charge an offender with disorderly conduct if the offender doesn’t present an actual physical danger to the public.

What are Some Defenses to Disorderly Conduct Charges?

The range of defenses available to you when charged with disorderly conduct will depend on the specific facts of your case. Here are some commonly asserted defenses:

  • Defense of Self or Others: Self-defense is a broadly defined term that can be offered as a defense to many criminal charges. You can assert it if you engaged in violent or aggressive behavior to protect yourself or someone else from being seriously injured.
    • For example, suppose you are in a crowded nightclub and jostle a fellow patron and the police are called. In this scenario the police will likely not charge you with engaging in disorderly conduct. If you get into a fight with the fellow patron, the police may decide to charge you with assault and battery and disorderly conduct.
    • However, if the fight ensued because the patron struck you first or threatened to hit your friend, you may be able to successfully assert self-defense.
  • Freedom of Speech: Members of the public may be charged with disorderly conduct for engaging in profane, inciting, and offensive communication. It is not against the law, however, to simply make a statement that someone disagrees with. The statement has to be intended to be disruptive.
    • For example, loudly berating a popular congressman doesn’t rise to the level of disorderly conduct. However, if you engage in the same sort of behavior in a restaurant, the police may arrest you for your disturbing conduct.
  • Private Conduct: Disorderly conduct is a criminal offense because it is disturbing to the public. Therefore, some states will have statutes that limit the charge to conduct that is carried on in public.
    • For example, the police aren’t likely to charge you with disorderly conduct in response to a domestic call. The police can charge you with related criminal offenses, but a disorderly conduct charge is less likely.
    • However, if you stand up repeatedly during a council meeting to argue a point, you may be subject to a disorderly conduct charge. Further, you may not be charged with arguing with the police, but if you are doing so while blocking traffic, your behavior may be considered disorderly.

What is the Punishment for Disorderly Conduct Conviction?

As the laws defining disorderly conduct vary from state to state, so do the penalties. In most states, a disorderly conduct charge is considered a misdemeanor. If convicted of a misdemeanor, you may be issued a citation or warning, assessed fines, ordered to participate in a prevention or education program, sentenced to community service, required to complete probation, or incarcerated for up to a year.

There are several factors that can either increase or mitigate (lessen) the severity of the sentence once you have been convicted. If you are a first-time offender or you have a nonviolent criminal history, your sentence is less likely to include incarceration. Whether you were maliciously motivated or used fear or intimidation in disturbing the peace will also be considered.

Property damage and personal injury can also lead to a greater punishment. Also, the specific statute under which you are charged may list certain types of conduct as more egregious than others.

What Can I Do to Avoid Being Charged with Disorderly Conduct?

The answer to this really depends on the factual situation. However, if the police issue a command to cease and desist or to move on, it is best to do so. If you have an interaction with someone who is being loud or obnoxious and you have tried to calmly communicate with them, you should contact the police or leave the area if you can.

In most cases the police will issue a warning if there is a noise complaint. If you have already received a warning to keep the noise down, you should do so immediately to avoid being charged with disorderly conduct and related offenses.

What Should I Do If I Am Charged with Disorderly Conduct?

If you are accused of disorderly conduct or a related crime, consult with a criminal defense lawyer. Although these types of charges are usually charged as misdemeanors, your attorney can help you determine if there are any complete defenses that may be available to you.