Under Penal Code 415 PC, California law defines the crime of disturbing the peace as playing excessively loud music, getting into a fight with someone, or using certain offensive language or fighting words. Disturbing the peace can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a noncriminal infraction.
415 PC states that:
“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:
Any person who unlawfully fights in a public place or challenges another person in a public place to fight.
Any person who maliciously and willfully disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noise.
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 referred to as “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.
A defendant may contest a disturbing the peace charge with a legal defense. Common defenses include:
A violation of 415 PC is a wobblette criminal offense. This means that a prosecutor can charge it as either:
- an infraction, or
- a misdemeanor.
The maximum penalties include:
- custody in county jail for up to 90 days,
- a fine of up to $400, or
- both jail time and a fine.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. What constitutes 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 a person 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?
1. What constitutes disturbing the peace?
Penal Code 415 PC says that there are three ways a person 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 a defendant of disturbing the peace via a fight:
- the accused 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 a person did an act deliberately or on purpose.4
Note that a person is not guilty under this statute if he was acting in self-defense. This is provided that the person using self-defense:
- reasonably believed that he, or someone else, was 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)
A person is guilty of PC 415(2) through unreasonable noise if two things are true. These are:
- he willfully and maliciously caused loud and unreasonable noise, and
- the noise disturbed another person.6
“Maliciously” means a person 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 a person of disturbing the peace via offensive words:
- the accused used offensive words which were likely to provoke a violent reaction, and
- the defendant used the words in a public place.9
A person uses offensive words “likely to provoke a violent reaction” if:
- he says something that is reasonably likely to provoke someone else to react violently, and
- when he makes that statement, there is a clear and present danger that the other person will immediately erupt into violence.10
Note that a person does not have to intend to provoke a violent response to be liable under this statute.11
In addition, an accused is not guilty of this crime if he reasonably believed that his 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?
A defendant can challenge a PC 415 charge with a legal defense.
Three common defenses to criminal charges are:
- no criminal intent,
- behavior was constitutionally protected,
- falsely accused, and/or
(Another potential defense is that nothing the defendant did rose to the level of disturbing the peace, and the police overreacted.)
2.1. No criminal intent
A person is only guilty under these laws if he acted:
- willfully (per PC 415(1)),
- maliciously (per PC 415(2)), or
- with the intent to incite violence (per PC 415(3)).
This means that it is a defense for an accused to show that he did not act with this intent.
Example: Kelly is walking home one night and someone jumps out of an alley and grabs her. She pushes off the attacker and hits him with her person. Here, Kelly is not guilty of PC 415(1). She did not willfully fight the attacker. She merely hit him in self-defense.
2.2. Behavior was constitutionally protected
A defendant is not guilty under this statute if his words or conduct were protected by First Amendment free speech laws.
For example, an accused is innocent if he:
- used offensive words while participating in a political protest, or
- made a loud religious speech with a bullhorn in a public place.13
2.3. Falsely accused
Many people wrongfully accuse others of violating PC 415. For example, in the context of angry neighbors, one may accuse the other of using unreasonable noise as a form of payback for something done in the past. This means it is always a defense for a defendant to say that he was unjustly blamed for a crime.
Fighting back is perfectly legal in California as long as the person reasonably believed he/she was about to suffer harm, that using force would be necessary to deflect the attack, and no more force than necessary was used. If the defendant’s actions fell within the bounds of lawful self-defense (or defense of others), then the disturbing the peace charge should be dropped.
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
- the criminal history of the defendant.
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 the defendant is not a student or staff member of the school, the penalties are the same as for disturbing the peace under NRS 415. But if the defendant has 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 L.A. County D.A.’s office will generally not prosecute disturbing the peace cases unless the suspect has been a repeat offender in the prior 24 months, or shows no signs of substance abuse disorder or mental illness.14
4. Are there immigration consequences?
A conviction of disturbing the peace will not have negative immigration consequences.
Some California crimes can result in a non-citizen defendant being either:
An example is a “crime involving moral turpitude.”
PC 415, though, is not one of these offenses.
5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
A person convicted under this statute can get an expungement of the criminal record.
This is true provided that the defendant successfully completed:
- probation, or
- a jail term (whichever is applicable).
If a party violates a probation term, a judge may still award expungement. This lies in the judge’s discretion.
Under Penal Code 1203.4 PC, an expungement means a person is 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 hurt a defendant’s gun rights.
Some crimes in California result in a defendant losing his rights to purchase or own a gun. An example is any crime that is charged as a felony.
A conviction under Penal Code 415, however, does not produce these results.
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:
- the defendant often serves jail time, or pays 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 for a person 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, a person 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.
A person commits trespassing when he:
- enters, or remains on, someone else’s property, and
- does 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 for a person to:
- willfully resist or obstruct a police officer, or EMT,
- in the performance of his official duties.
Arrests for this crime often take place:
- after a person reports a disturbing the peace crime, and
- the suspect does not cooperate.
For additional help…
Contact us to discuss creating an attorney-client relationship. We have offices in Los Angeles County, San Francisco, Orange County, Long Beach, Ontario, Riverside, and elsewhere throughout the state of California.
For information on disturbing the peace laws in Nevada, please see our article on “Disturbing the Peace’ in Nevada (NRS 203.010).”
- 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), 261 Cal. Rptr. 3d 250, 47 Cal. App. 5th 838; see also In re Curtis S. (Cal. App. 4th Dist. Apr. 19, 2013), 215 Cal. App. 4th 758, 155 Cal. Rptr. 3d 703.
- PC 415; PC 415.5; California Penal Code 415; LADA Special Directive 20-07.
- California Penal Code section 1203.4.