Under Penal Code § 415 PC, California law defines the crime of disturbing the peace as doing any of the following:
- playing excessively loud music,
- fighting in public, or
- using certain offensive language or fighting words.
PC 415 charge
|Infraction||Up to $250 in fines (and no jail)|
|Misdemeanor||Up to 90 days in jail and/or up to $400|
The full text of the statute reads as follows:
415. Any of the following persons shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a period of not more than 90 days, a fine of not more than four hundred dollars ($400), or both such imprisonment and fine:
(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 willfully 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.
Note that the offense is sometimes called “police code 415.”
- picking a fight with someone in a bar.
- trying to disturb a neighbor by blasting loud music in his direction.
- yelling a highly offensive racial slur to someone in public.
You may contest a disturbing the peace charge with a legal defense. Common defenses include:
- you had no criminal intent,
- your behavior was constitutionally protected,
- you were falsely accused, and/or
- you acted in self-defense
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define “disturbing the peace”?
- 2. Are there defenses to disturbing the peace?
- 3. What are the penalties for 415 PC violations?
- 4. Are there immigration consequences?
- 5. Can I get a conviction expunged?
- 6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
- 7. How is Penal Code 415 used as a plea-bargaining tool?
- 8. Are there related offenses?
- Additional resources
1. How does California law define “disturbing the peace”?
Penal Code 415 PC says that there are three ways you can commit the crime of “disturbing the peace.” These are by:
- unlawfully fighting in a public place,
- disturbing someone with loud noise, and
- using offensive words in a public place.1
1.1. Unlawful fighting – PC 415(1)
A prosecutor must prove the following to convict you of disturbing the peace via a fight:
- you willfully and unlawfully fought another person (or challenged another person to a fight)2, and
- the fight or challenge happened in a public place.3
“Willfully” means you did an act deliberately or on purpose.4
Note that you are not guilty under this statute if you were acting in self-defense. This is provided that you:
- reasonably believed that you, or someone else, were about to suffer bodily harm,
- reasonably believed that force was necessary for protection, and
- used no more force than necessary to defend against the danger.5
1.2. Unreasonable noise – PC 415(2)
You are guilty of PC 415(2) through unreasonable noise if two things are true. These are:
- you willfully and maliciously caused loud and unreasonable noise, and
- the noise disturbed another person.6
“Maliciously” means you acted with the intent to:
- do something wrongful, or
- annoy or injure someone else.7
In order to disturb another person by “causing loud and unreasonable noise,” there must be either:
- a clear and present danger of immediate violence, or
- the noise must be used for the purpose of disrupting lawful activities, rather than as a means to communicate.8
Example: Keith is singing loudly in a motel hallway. This alone does not amount to a crime under PC 415(2) because there was no danger of violence or disruption of lawful activities.
However, a crime would likely occur if Keith saw a person being chased by the police and he shouted repeatedly for hotel guests to get out of their rooms. This is because the shouting was done to have the guests get in the way of the law enforcement officers and thereby disrupt them from apprehending the suspect (a lawful activity).
1.3. Offensive words – PC 415(3)
A prosecutor must prove the following to convict you of disturbing the peace via offensive words:
- you used offensive words that were likely to provoke a violent reaction, and
- you used the words in a public place.9
You use offensive words “likely to provoke a violent reaction” if:
- you say something that is reasonably likely to provoke someone else to react violently, and
- when you make that statement, there is a clear and present danger that the other person will immediately erupt into violence.10
Note that you do not have to intend to provoke a violent response to be liable under this statute.11
In addition, you are not guilty of this crime if you reasonably believed that your words were not likely to provoke a violent reaction.12
Example: Nia dumps Jerome after a lengthy relationship. Both are 17 years of age. Jerome is furious and finds his ex with her dad at a shopping mall. He repeatedly tells the dad that his daughter is a “filthy whore and a bitch.”
Here, Jerome is likely guilty of disturbing the peace. He said something that was likely to provoke the dad to react violently. There was also a danger that the dad would erupt in violence.
The outcome would be different, though, if Jerome:
- told the dad that his daughter “broke his heart, and
- reasonably believed his words would not provoke a violent response.
2. Are there defenses to disturbing the peace?
Here at Shouse Law Group, we have represented literally thousands of people charged with disturbing the peace. In our experience, the following four defenses have proven very effective with prosecutors and judges.
2.1. You had no criminal intent
Since prosecutors can never definitively prove what is going on inside your head, it is a very powerful defense for us to argue that you never acted:
- willfully (per PC 415(1)),
- maliciously (per PC 415(2)), or
- with the intent to incite violence (per PC 415(3)).
Instead, we could argue that you were merely being negligent or careless, or that you thought you were being helpful. As long as any reasonable doubt exists as to your state of mind, you should not be convicted of disturbing the peace.
2.2. Your behavior was constitutionally protected
Disturbing the peace charges should not stand if your words or conduct were protected by the First Amendment. For example, we would use this defense if you:
- used offensive words while participating in a political protest, or
- made a loud religious speech with a bullhorn in a public place.13
Helpful evidence in these cases includes video and eyewitness accounts of the event in question. Then once we show this evidence to the prosecutor, they may be persuaded to drop the charge.
2.3. You were falsely accused
We see cases all the time of people wrongfully accusing others of violating PC 415. A common scenario is a neighbor accusing the people next door of making unreasonable noise as a form of payback for something done in the past.
In these types of situations, we sift through the accuser’s recorded communications in search of evidence of their motivation to lie. Then once we show the prosecutor that the accuser lacks credibility, they may agree to dismiss the case.
2.4. You acted in self-defense
PC 415 prohibits fighting in public, but fighting back is perfectly legal in California as long as
- you reasonably believed you were about to suffer harm,
- you reasonably believed that that using force would be necessary to deflect the attack, and
- no more force than necessary was used.
Often we can find video footage or eyewitness accounts that plainly show your actions fell within the bounds of lawful self-defense (or defense of others). At that point, the D.A. may realize that they charged the wrong person and can drop your case.
3. What are the penalties for a 415 PC violation?
A violation of this code section is a wobblette offense. This means that a prosecutor can charge it as either an infraction or a misdemeanor depending on:
- the facts of the case, and
- your criminal history.
The maximum penalties include:
- A 90-day jail sentence,
- a fine of up to $400, or
- both jail time and a fine.
Note that PC 415.5 prohibits disturbing the peace on school, college, or university grounds. If you are not a student or staff member of the school, the penalties are the same as for disturbing the peace under NRS 415. But if you have any prior convictions for crimes that took place on school grounds (such as disturbing the peace), then the minimum jail sentence is 3 months, and the maximum fine is $1,000.
Los Angeles prosecutions
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office will generally not prosecute disturbing the peace cases unless you have been a repeat offender in the prior 24 months.14
4. Are there immigration consequences?
A conviction of disturbing the peace will not have negative immigration consequences because it is not a “crime involving moral turpitude.”
5. Can I get a conviction expunged?
If you are convicted under this statute, you can get your criminal record expunged if you successfully complete:
- probation, or
- a jail term (whichever is applicable).
If you violate a probation term, a judge has the discretion to still grant you expungement.
Under Penal Code 1203.4 PC, an expungement means you are free from many of the hardships that result from a conviction.15
6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
A conviction under PC 415 does not threaten your gun rights because it is not a felony or related to drugs or domestic violence.
7. How is Penal Code 415 used as a please-bargaining tool?
The crime of disturbing the peace is often used as a negotiating tool for plea bargains.
When this happens, a defense lawyer negotiates a PC 415 charge in lieu of a more serious offense, such as:
- lewd conduct in public, per Penal Code 647a PC,
- making criminal threats, per Penal Code 422 PC,
- prostitution, per Penal Code 647b PC, or
- California domestic violence charges.
Example: Paul and his girlfriend Marie get into a fight outside of a bar. Their yelling disturbs patrons who are outside smoking. Marie eventually scratches Paul, and in return, he slaps her in the face.
Paul is arrested for domestic battery, a form of domestic violence. But his lawyer negotiates with the prosecutor, who agrees to reduce the charge to one of breaching the peace through unreasonable noise.
Note that when a PC 415 charge gets substituted for a more serious offense:
- you often serve jail time, or pay a higher fine,
- in exchange for the reduced charge.
8. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to disturbing the peace. These are:
- battery – PC 242,
- trespass – PC 602, and
- resisting arrest – PC 148.
(Other similar crimes include Creating Or Maintaining A Public Nuisance (PC 372 $ 373(a)), Disturbing A Public Meeting Or Assembly (PC 403), and Disturbing A Religious Meeting (PC 302).)
8.1. Battery – PC 242
Penal Code 242 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime to commit a battery.
A battery is defined as any willful and unlawful use of force or violence on someone else.
Note that, depending on the facts of the case, you can be charged with both:
- battery (under PC 242), and
- disturbing the peace (under PC 415(1)).
8.2. Trespass – PC 602
Penal Code 602 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of criminal trespass.
You commit trespassing when you:
- enter, or remain on, someone else’s property, and
- do so without permission or a right to do so.
This statute sets forth literally dozens of situations in which the offense of trespass may take place.
8.3. Resisting arrest – PC 148
Penal Code 148 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime to:
- willfully resist or obstruct a police officer or EMT,
- in the performance of their official duties.
Arrests for this crime often take place:
- after a person reports a disturbing the peace crime, and
- you do not cooperate.
For more in-depth information, refer to these scholarly articles:
- In Pursuit of Ordered Liberty: Breach of the Peace in California – Hastings Law Review.
- The Fighting Words Doctrine – Columbia Law Review.
- Fighting the Fighting Words Standard: A Call for Its Destruction – Rutgers Law Review.
- Disturbing the Peace – Central Law Journal.
- Civil Disturbances, Mass Processing and Misdemeanants: Rights, Remedies and Realities – The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science.
- California Penal Code 415 PC.
- Note that a person making gang gestures can equate to challenging someone to a fight. See In re Cesar V. (2011) 192 Cal. App. 4th 989.
- CALCRIM No. 2688. Disturbing the Peace: Fighting or Challenging Someone to Fight. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).
- People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 102.
- CALCRIM 3470 – Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another (Non-Homicide).
- CALCRIM No. 2689. Disturbing the Peace: Loud and Unreasonable Noise. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition); CALCRIM No. 2690. Disturbing the Peace: Offensive Words.
- See same.
- See same. See also In re Brown (1973) 9 Cal.3d 612.
- CALCRIM No. 2690. Disturbing the Peace: Offensive Words. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition);
- See same. See also In re Brown, supra; and, In re Alejandro G. (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 44.
- Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) 310 U.S. 296.
- In re John V. (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 761.
- See, for example, Rosenbaum v. City & County of San Francisco (2007) 484 F.3d 1142. See also People v. Dennis (Cal. App. 4th Dist. Apr. 14, 2020) 47 Cal. App. 5th 838; see also In re Curtis S. (Cal. App. 4th Dist. Apr. 19, 2013), 215 Cal. App. 4th 758.
- PC 415; PC 415.5; California Penal Code 415; LADA Special Directive 20-07.
- California Penal Code section 1203.4.