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Disturbing the Peace

The crime of “disturbing the peace” is something most of us have witnessed at some point in our life, without necessarily realizing it was a crime. This criminal charge can be broadly applied by arresting police officers throughout the East Bay, as crimes against the peace. It can also be abused, with innocent, law-abiding citizens facing misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace simply for expressing their First Amendment rights.

What is Disturbing the Peace?

Disturbing the peace, also known as “breaching the peace” is covered byCalifornia Penal Code 415, which states it is a violation for:

  1. Any person who unlawfully fights in a public place or challenges another person in a public place to fight;

  2. Any person who maliciously and wilfully disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noise;

  3. Any person who uses offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.

Examples of Disturbing the Peace

The crime of disturbing the peace includes fights, disturbance by loud noises, and use of offensive words. This could involve any variety of activities, including someone instigating a fight over a parking space, people fighting at a concert, playing music too loudly to annoy the neighbors, or using fighting words such as racial slurs to someone which could instigate a fight.

Offensive Words

The Constitution guarantees free speech, however, there are a few exceptions to freedom of speech, such as using threats of violence. Another possible exception to free speech includes use of offensive words, or “fighting words.” This includes speech which tends to incite an immediate breach of peace by provoking a fight or violent reaction. There is no clear list of what words would be considered to be offensive to provoke a fight. It would have to be determined based on the individual circumstances of the case, the alleged speaker, the person allegedly offended, and where and how the situation takes place.

Penalties for Disturbing the Peace

Violation of California Penal Code 415 for “disturbing the peace” can be treated as an infraction or as a misdemeanor. It is considered a crime against the peace. A conviction is punishable by a fine of up to $400, and not more than 90 days in jail.

Disturbing the Peace at a School or University

There is a separate law which is applied if there is a disturbance of the peace within any building, or upon the grounds of any school, community college or university. This is not aimed at students, but at persons who are not students or employees. While the penalties for a first time violation are the same as the regular disturbing the peace violation, a second conviction has increased penalties, including a minimum of 10 days in jail, up to a maximum of 6 months. The fine is also increased to a maximum of $1,000. If a defendant has two or more prior disturbing the peace at a school convictions, penalties are again increased to include jail time for a minimum 90 days.

Possible Defenses to Disturbing the Peace

Possible defenses to a charge of disturbing the peace will depend on the nature of the incident, and the facts surrounding the arrest. If charged with fighting, possible defenses include showing that there was no fight, but the people involved were just fooling around, or that it was in self-defense. Noise violations could be defended as not having any intent to willfully disturb another person, or not knowing another person was within the area. A defense to charges of using fighting words could be defended by claims that the speech was protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will be able to review the facts of a defendant's individual case, and discuss the possible defenses.

There is a serious possibility of getting arrested for “disturbing the peace” while participating in activity protected by the Constitution. If you have been arrested for disturbing the peace while participating in a march or protest or making a political or social statement, you should not have to plead guilty and have a criminal record. You need to fight for your rights and for your freedom of speech. Contact an East Bay lawyer with experience in defending people charged with criminal violations.

Experienced East Bay Attorney Representation:

If you or a loved one were arrested while out in public in San Lorenzo, Oakland, or Fremont, or pulled over in Antioch, Pinole or San Ramon, or anywhere else in Contra Costa or Alameda counties, Lynn Gorelick is familiar with the local disturbing the peace laws.  She knows the local prosecutors, judges, and officers involved.  With over 30 years of criminal defense experience, Lynn Gorelick understands the law and the science required to fight disturbing the peace, and other alcohol charges.  

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