When people talk about disorderly conduct, if they’re in California, the behavior they are describing is actually considered disturbing the peace. There are three types of behaviors covered by California Penal Code 415 (PC), these include playing excessively loud music, getting in a fight in public or even using certain words. While these crimes may seem relatively minor, they can still be charged as misdemeanors, which means they will stay on your criminal record, which could dramatically impact your future.
What is Disorderly Conduct Under 415 (PC)?
California Penal Code Section 415 (PC) states that it is against the law to:
- Fight another person in a public place
- Challenge someone to fight while in a public place
- Willfully and maliciously disturb another person with loud and unreasonable noise
- Use offensive words in a public place that are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction from another person
One thing few people understand about these laws is that when the law says a “public place,” it’s not just referring to a government-owned area such as a park or beach, but essentially any place outside of a private home. Even if a mall, restaurant or bar is privately owned, the property is still considered public because it is open to the general public. Even being inside your vehicle on a public road or parking lot is considered being out in public.
Unlawful Fighting in Public
For prosecutors to secure a conviction related to disturbing the peace by fighting or challenging someone to a fight in a public place, they must show that the defendant willfully and unlawfully fought or challenged another person to a fight and that they were in a public place at the time.
One of the best ways to fight this type of disorderly conduct is to claim you were acting in self defense. This defense will only be successful if you believed:
- you or another person was in danger of immediate violence
- the only way to protect you or the other person was to use force
- you did not use excessive force
Maliciously and willfully disturbing another person by loud noises is another violation of 415 (PC). In order for the prosecution to prove your guilt in these cases, they must show you played loud music, screamed or otherwise made loud and unreasonable noise, knowing you were doing something wrongful or were acting with the intent to annoy someone else. “Disturbing” someone under this law means that the noise either caused a clear and present danger of violence or the noise was used to disrupt lawful activities, not as a means of communication.
In other words, if you used a megaphone at a rally to help communicate to everyone in the crowd, you didn’t break the law, even if it annoyed people of opposing views. On the other hand, if you mumbled nonsense on the megaphone just to prevent the other side from being able to talk to one another, that means you were acting maliciously to disrupt their lawful right to protest.
Using Offensive Words
Yes, in America we have the right to free speech, but if you use offensive language that is likely to result in a violent response, you can be charged with a crime. Essentially if you use “fighting words,” you broke the law. It’s important to recognize that you didn’t need to actually succeed in causing a violent reaction, just that you used language likely to do so.
This is one situation where your criminal defense attorney is likely to argue that you were exercising your First Amendment right to free speech, even if it actually disturbed another person enough to start a fight. This defense will not work in every situation, but it can be very effective as Americans are particularly protective of their right to free speech.
Penalties for Disturbing the Peace
Depending on your criminal record and the specifics of the case, this crime may be charged as a misdemeanor or infraction. If it is charged as an infraction, you will only face a fine and the charge will stay off of your record. On other other hand, when the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, you can face a $400 fine, 90 days in the county jail and the charge will end up on your record so it can be held against you when you apply for jobs, housing or if you are charged with another offense in the future.
Related Criminal Charges
Those accused of disorderly conduct may also face other criminal charges as well. If they attempted to fight or challenge someone to a fight, the could face violent crimes charges such as assault with a deadly weapon, making criminal threats, assault or battery. If the two parties involved are married, dating or otherwise intimate, the aggressor could also face domestic violence charges.
If the incident occurred during a protest, other common charges include rioting, looting, unlawful assembly, resisting arrest, lynching or failure to disperse. In these cases, it is common for the police to overreact to having to monitor a large number of people all at once and one of the best defenses is to claim that you were only engaged in lawful activities and there is insufficient proof to show that you acted in a violent manner or otherwise caused a disturbance.
It’s worth knowing that disturbing the peace is commonly thought of as the lowest level of misdemeanors, as it is essentially just the crime of making loud noise, so it is actually not commonly charged as a misdemeanor but instead used as reduced charge for more serious misdemeanors in plea bargains. For example a battery charge results in the prohibition of gun possession, but disturbing the peace doesn’t have that consequence. It is also capable of being made an infraction even after a conviction. In fact, this is is the go-to generic misdemeanor when the prosecutors won’t dismiss all charges.
If you are accused of disturbing the peace in San Diego, attorney Peter Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation.
Image by Ashihsh Choudhary