June 29, 2015
When a person causes a disturbance in a public place, disorderly conduct charges may result. Disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor, and the charges may not seem serious. However, the real cost of a disorderly conduct arrest or conviction is often that the offender now has a permanent criminal record, which can affect his or her employment options, housing, schooling, and other areas of life.
In Florida, the charge of disorderly conduct applies when a person breaches the peace by:
- Corrupting the public morals
- Outraging the sense of public decency
- Affecting the peace and quiet of the public
- Engaging in brawling or fighting
- Otherwise engaging in disorderly conduct that breaches the peace
This definition is broad and can include a wide variety of factual scenarios. Disorderly conduct charges often involve public intoxication, public arguments, encounters with police, physical fighting, obstructing traffic, unreasonably loud noise, or loitering in certain areas, among other behavior.
Disorderly conduct is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by any combination of:
Jail time is unlikely for first offenders, unless the charges involved highly disruptive actions toward police officers or a legitimate threat to public safety. However, having a criminal record creates serious and long-term problems for an offender.
Disorderly conduct charges often involve disruptive speech, but such charges can run up against First Amendment protections. Purely verbal conduct is protected as free speech. Under the First Amendment, the only disruptive speech that can be prosecuted without any accompanying physical action are fighting words and words like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.
Fighting words are words that, merely by being spoken, cause injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace. Words like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater means words that the speaker knows to be false and that create a panic that puts the public in danger of bodily harm.
Mere profanity or yelling at the police is not sufficient to sustain a disorderly conduct charge. But if the speech is accompanied by physical conduct that makes it difficult for the police officer to carry out his or her duties, that may be enough to constitute disorderly conduct.
Additionally, simply being loud, belligerent, or annoying is not enough to be a breach of the peace. The conduct must be more than a mere annoyance to others.
Causing a crowd to gather is not sufficient to sustain disorderly conduct charges. The government may not criminalize behavior simply because people pay attention to it. Instead, the prosecution must show that the crowd is reacting to the words in a manner that threatens to breach the peace.
The defense of self-defense may be available when the disorderly conduct charge involves fighting, but the defendant must not have provoked the altercation.
Disorderly conduct charges may not seem serious, but an experienced attorney may be able to help you to avoid conviction and the creation of a permanent criminal record. If you have been arrested for or charged with disorderly conduct, please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.