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Disorderly Conduct Definition

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

Understanding Disorderly Conduct Charges

Disorderly conduct is a catch-all charge police use for behaviors that disrupt public order or cause issues in the community. Basically, it covers anything illegal that doesn’t fall under a more specific crime category. But the definition tends to be broad and vague—what exactly constitutes “disorderly?”—and laws vary quite a bit between states.

What Activities Can Lead to Disorderly Conduct Charges?

There’s no definitive list of disorderly behaviors since statutes define it so loosely. But some common examples include:

  • Public intoxication
  • Disturbing the peace with loud noise
  • Using profanity in public
  • Loitering
  • Panhandling aggressively

Police also charge people with disorderly conduct for things like:

  • Refusing to disperse when asked
  • Obstructing vehicle or pedestrian traffic
  • Engaging in fights or brawls
  • Making unreasonable noise
  • Flashing or public urination

So basically, disorderly conduct covers any activities that could be seen as dangerous, disruptive, or indecent when done publicly. The key in many states is that the conduct must threaten public safety or outrage public sensibilities. But again, it’s open to very loose interpretation.

Disorderly Conduct vs. Disturbing the Peace

There’s a lot of overlap between disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace charges. In fact, some states have lumped them together under the same statutes.
But there are some differences in certain places. For example, in California, disorderly conduct always requires some physical action like fighting in public or obstructing a sidewalk. Disturbing the peace, however, covers things done verbally like:

  • Shouting obscenities
  • Making unreasonable noise
  • Using offensive language

So disturbing the peace charges often relate to speech itself being disruptive, whereas disorderly conduct involves physically disruptive behaviors. Other states may define them differently though.

Disorderly Conduct Penalties

Since disorderly conduct includes such a wide range of activities, penalties can vary a lot depending on what you actually did.
Most disorderly conduct charges result in misdemeanor offenses. Typical penalties include:

  • Up to 1 year in jail
  • Fines up to $1,000
  • Probation
  • Community service

But in some states, certain disorderly conduct charges can count as felonies. For example, aggressively panhandling or loitering near schools or parks sometimes gets charged as a felony.
Penalties also tend to escalate if it’s not your first offense. Many states upgrade subsequent convictions to high misdemeanors or felonies with heavier fines and jail times.

When Can Speech Lead to Charges?

Since disorderly conduct covers so many types of activities, free speech questions come up a lot. Yes, you have a First Amendment right to free expression. But not when it threatens public safety or order.
Still, disorderly conduct charges sometimes get brought against people for protected speech that’s unpopular or offensive to others. Common examples include:

  • Vulgar language
  • Distasteful protests
  • Controversial speeches or rallies

The Supreme Court has ruled that speech can’t be considered disorderly conduct unless it’s clearly dangerous or poses a “clear and present danger.” But police still stretch this standard and make improper arrests for protected speech.

Fighting Unlawful Speech Charges

If you face charges for speech you believe was lawful, a few good defenses include:

  • Your speech didn’t cause any dangerous behavior or public disruption
  • You weren’t targeting individuals with threats or harassment
  • There were no injuries, damage to property, or breaches of the peace
  • You didn’t use “fighting words” meant to incite violence

An experienced lawyer can also argue the charges violate your First Amendment rights. If police wrongfully arrested you, they may dismiss the charges rather than fight a losing constitutional battle in court.

When Can You Be Charged on Private Property?

Disorderly conduct charges usually relate to activities in public spaces. But many statutes also prohibit disorderly behaviors on other people’s private property.
For example, they often charge party hosts with disorderly conduct for allowing drunken guests to cause problems in their homes. Or stores can request charges against unruly customers who won’t leave when asked.
So you don’t have to be in public areas to face charges. The key is usually whether your conduct causes “public” disturbances that spill out into the community. Things like loud parties, brawls, or flashing can still count as disorderly even on private property.

Defending Against Disorderly Conduct Allegations

The biggest challenge with disorderly conduct laws is that they’re so broad and loosely defined. There are many potential holes to poke in the charges if you have an aggressive defense lawyer on your side.
Here are some of the main strategies they may use:

Question the Danger Posed

Since most states require conduct that threatens public safety, you can fight allegations that your activities actually posed any danger. If there were no injuries or harm done, you can argue it doesn’t rise to the level of disorderly.

Dispute the Public Aspect

Many charges relate to conduct on private property instead of in public areas. Your lawyer may argue that activities on places like your own home don’t fall under disorderly conduct laws.

Challenge the Speech Restrictions

If charges relate to your speech instead of conduct, you may have a First Amendment defense. Disorderly speech has to meet very strict standards under Supreme Court rulings your lawyer can cite.

Question the Statute’s Vagueness

Since disorderly conduct covers so many different activities, the statutes themselves tend to be vague. Your lawyer may be able to get charges dismissed by arguing they don’t give proper notice of what’s actually illegal.
But again, in many states these laws give police lots of leeway. So fighting the allegations takes an experienced lawyer and a willingness to aggressively defend your rights in court.

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