Disorderly Conduct Laws & Charges

Charges that regard the concept of disorderly conduct were created in an attempt to help communities across the United States to run as smoothly, peacefully, and calmly as possible. As a result, municipalities, and states have numerous laws that may limit what a person can reasonably do within that specific area without causing offense or disruption. In Massachusetts, whenever someone engages in conduct that is likely to cause some sort of non-peaceful event or disturbance, this will generally be referred to as a breach of the peace, and therefore lead to disorderly conduct charges.

Disorderly conduct charges are particularly common in cases when intoxicated people get together in groups or engage in public displays. As many people can imagine, disorderly conduct is just one of the most commonly filed charges in any jurisdiction.

In Massachusetts, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace is covered by Section 53 of Chapter 272 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

Examples of Disorderly Conduct

In most circumstances, the definitions surrounding disorderly conduct as an offense will cover:

  • The circumstances - many disorderly conduct cases will include behavior that might not have been classed as disorderly if it was carried out at a different time, in a different location. For instance, if people shout loudly in a neighborhood street late at night, they will be seen as guilty of disorderly conduct. However, people using the same voice volume in an industrial area in the middle of the day will not be charged.
  • Objectivity - When someone is charged with the offense of disorderly conduct, it is not entirely necessary for the prosecution to show that another person was alarmed by it. Instead, courts must apply an objective standard when determining whether or not conduct was disorderly according to the law.
  • Location - Massachusetts prohibits disorderly conduct in public areas, or conduct that might otherwise disturb the natural order of a public location. Courts have held that public areas can include places like restroom stalls in a public location, carnivals, emergency rooms at a hospital, and even private buildings that have been made available for entertainment purposes and public rental.

Some types of activity that might be defined as disorderly conduct in a legal sense include:

  • Fighting - Prosecutors will punish fighting, or physical scuffles in a public place as disorderly conduct, even though there are also possibilities for more serious charges like battery and assault to be applied. However, it's worth noting that the circumstances of the case will often determine whether a prosecutor issues a charge of battery, assault, disorderly conduct, or something more serious.
  • Disturbing an assembly - An action that is done to interrupt a sanctioned public rally, city council meeting, or religious ceremony can be enough to be identified as disorderly conduct - depending on the surrounding circumstances.
  • Protests - Individuals have the right to engage in peaceful protests as part of their constitutionally protected right but engaging in a disruptive protest can lead to a charge of disorderly conduct. For instance, some courts have held that participants in sit-in demonstrations have acted in a disorderly manner by disrupting or blocking traffic.
  • Public misconduct - Engaging in private conduct in a public place can be seen as disorderly conduct. In other words, actions like public urination, public intoxication, and public masturbation may all be defined as disorderly conduct in certain circumstances.

Disorderly Conduct Punishment

Disorderly conduct will often be charged and punished as a misdemeanor offense, although it can sometimes qualify as a felony if the right circumstances are present - such as when someone makes a false report of a fire. State laws will differ according to the potential penalties that may be given for a conviction of disorderly conduct.

In Massachusetts, the penalties for disorderly conduct are as follows:

  • Common street walkers and common night walkers, whether male of female, who accost other people using disorderly language or actions, who use lascivious actions and speech, and those who keep disorderly and noisy houses - imprisonment in house of correction or jail for up to six months, a fine of up to $200, or both imprisonment and fine
  • Those who disturb the peace or who act in disorderly manner:
    ◦ First offense - fine of up to $150
    ◦ Second or subsequent offense - imprisonment of up to six months in a jail or house of correction, or fine of up to $200, or both fine and jail time

Disorderly Conduct Defenses

The defenses that can be used to protect an individual in disorderly conduct cases can include:

  • Self-defense - which is the claim that the disorderly conduct (usually an act of violence), was done so that you could protect yourself.
  • Freedom of speech - If the charge was for making unreasonable noise or engaging in a public argument, you might claim that you have the right to do so. However, this defense should be used only in the appropriate circumstances. In other words, the speech must be of a certain nature to qualify.
  • Privacy/Public distinctions - in a disorderly conduct case, you may draw attention to the fact that disorderly conduct is only used for disagreeable conduct in public. In other words, it should not be invoked for domestic disputes or something that was done in a private area.

What to Do If You Have Been Charged

A conviction of disorderly conduct usually has a minor punishment, such as a fine, at least for the first offense. Nevertheless, an experienced criminal defense lawyer may be able to seek dismissal or minimize your penalty by assessing the best strategy for your defense.

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