Extremely offensive behavior that would be likely to disturb other people may be charged as disorderly conduct, or as disturbing the peace. Perhaps the most common example of disorderly conduct is public intoxication. This crime may be combined with disorderly conduct in a drunk and disorderly charge, or it may be charged separately. Sometimes public intoxication can be charged regardless of whether the defendant was disorderly. (Read more here about public intoxication.) Even if the defendant was not literally drunk, alcohol often plays a role in disorderly conduct because it lowers inhibitions.
Definition of Disorderly Conduct
Disorderly conduct covers a wide range of behaviors that could endanger the safety of the public, or at least prevent other people from enjoying the use of areas to which they are entitled. Sometimes it can result from a noisy confrontation or a fight, and participants in a fight may face additional charges, such as assault and battery. Trespassing or loitering also may be a basis. While the First Amendment protects the right to engage in peaceful protests, certain types of violent protests may support a disorderly conduct charge. In other situations, disorderly conduct arises from public conduct of a sexual nature, such as prostitution, solicitation, or indecent exposure. Depending on the state, some of these crimes also may be charged as sex crimes, which carry harsher penalties than disorderly conduct.
The prosecutor needs to meet an objective standard in proving disorderly conduct. This involves showing that a reasonable person in the area of the activity would have found it disturbing. The prosecutor does not need to prove that someone actually found it disturbing.
Certain actions that would be legal in a private setting or in some types of public settings may result in a disorderly conduct charge because of the specific setting in which they occurred. For example, loud shouting may be acceptable in a busy commercial district but not in a quiet residential neighborhood. Disorderly conduct does not need to occur on a public street. It can even occur on the defendant’s property if it unreasonably disturbs their neighbors. Also, activities that might be acceptable in the middle of the day might be disruptive late at night.
Penalties for Disorderly Conduct
Disorderly conduct is nearly always a misdemeanor or an infraction. It may be charged as a felony if the conduct presented a serious risk to public safety, such as falsely reporting a fire. Assuming that it is charged as a misdemeanor, the usual penalties do not involve any jail or prison time, although in theory a defendant could receive a jail term of less than one year. More often, they will be ordered to pay fines. If alcohol or drugs played a role in the incident, they may be ordered to attend an alcohol education or substance abuse course. Community service also may be an option. The defendant sometimes will receive probation, which means that a probation officer will monitor their behavior to make sure that no further incidents happen. If the defendant engages in another incident of disorderly conduct, they may receive a harsher sentence, such as fines or jail time.