Penal Code 408 PC | Unlawful Assembly

Penal Code 408 PC | Unlawful Assembly

So you got arrested for “unlawful assembly” in California? What does that even mean? Well, don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you in this article. Penal Code 408 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime to participate in an “unlawful assembly.” Let’s take a closer look at what exactly that entails.

What is an Unlawful Assembly?

Under California Penal Code 408, an unlawful assembly takes place whenever two or more people assemble together to do an unlawful act, or do a lawful act in a violent, boisterous or tumultuous manner.

So in other words, if you and your friends get together and decide to commit any crime – whether it’s graffiti, shoplifting, assault, etc. – you’ve met the definition of an unlawful assembly.

But even if you have no plans to break the law, just gathering in a rowdy way that disturbs the peace also counts. Police can declare an otherwise lawful protest or demonstration an unlawful assembly if things start getting out of hand.

What are the Penalties?

Unlawful assembly is a misdemeanor in California. If convicted, you face:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail,
  • A max $1,000 fine (higher for corporations), and/or
  • Informal probation.

However, if the unlawful assembly leads to violence or serious property damage, you could face felony charges for rioting instead.

Real World Examples

Let’s look at some real world examples of unlawful assembly cases in California:

  • Protestors blocking freeway – Protestors in Sacramento were charged with unlawful assembly after blocking I-5 during a BLM demonstration. Even though they had a 1st Amendment right to protest, doing so on the freeway was deemed an unlawful act.
  • Sideshows – When street racers and spectators take over intersections for dangerous stunts and sideshows, they often get cited for unlawful assembly along with other charges.
  • Bar fights – If a fight breaks out at a bar and multiple people participate, they could be on the hook for unlawful assembly along with assault charges.
  • Flash robs – Groups of people who coordinate “flash robs” to steal merchandise from stores en masse get charged with unlawful assembly and looting.

As you can see, unlawful assembly charges often accompany other offenses committed by a group. The assembly charge allows prosecutors to hold EVERYONE involved responsible, even if they weren’t directly committing the other crimes themselves.

Legal Defenses

If you’re facing charges under Penal Code 408 PC, working with an experienced California criminal defense lawyer is crucial. Here are some legal defenses they may use to fight the charges:

  • You didn’t promote or aid the unlawful assembly – If you were just going along with the crowd but didn’t actually coordinate or facilitate the gathering, you may be able to avoid responsibility.
  • The gathering wasn’t unlawful – Police sometimes overreach by declaring lawful protests or events an unlawful assembly. A good lawyer can argue the assembly didn’t meet the legal definition.
  • Your intent – If you had no idea the gathering would become violent or tumultuous, that could help show your innocence.
  • False accusations – The police may have mistaken you for someone else who was actually part of the assembly.
  • Entrapment – Undercover cops sometimes instigate or escalate protests in order to declare an unlawful assembly. A lawyer can argue you were entrapped.

An experienced attorney can also negotiate with the prosecutor, arguing to get charges reduced or dismissed. Many first-time offenders can get unlawful assembly charges knocked down to infractions or dismissed altogether.

Staying Out of Trouble

How can you avoid unlawful assembly charges in the first place? Here are some tips:

  • Don’t coordinate or promote criminal gatherings
  • Leave any protest or event that seems to be getting violent or chaotic
  • Follow police dispersal orders
  • Don’t go along with the crowd if they start breaking laws
  • Avoid blocked roads, vandalism or anything illegal

Exercising your constitutional rights is perfectly legal – but once a gathering becomes dangerous or disruptive, it crosses the line into unlawful territory. So stay on the right side of the law if you want to avoid Penal Code 408 charges.

Well I hope this breakdown gave you a better understanding of unlawful assembly charges in California. Let me know if you have any other legal questions!