California Penal Code 415 PC - Disturbing the Peace


Penal Code 415 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of "disturbing the peace" (and sometimes referred to as "breaching the peace").1 A person can commit this offense by:

  1. Unlawfully fighting, or challenging another person to fight, in a public place,
  2. Disturbing another person by loud and unreasonable noise; if this is done willfully and maliciously, and
  3. Using offensive words in a public place, if the words are likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.2

Behaviors that can constitute "disturbing the peace" include:

  • Instigating a fight at a bar with another patron;
  • After an argument with your neighbors, turning your outdoor speakers in the direction of their house and turning your music up loud with the goal of disturbing them; and
  • Uttering an ugly racial slur to a stranger of different ethnicity . . . and repeating the slur even after the stranger tells you that he will fight you if you say it again.
Penalties

Penal Code 415 PC -- "disturbing the peace" -- is an offense that, depending on the circumstances, prosecutors can charge as either a misdemeanor or as a less serious infraction.3

The maximum potential penalties are:

  • up to ninety (90) days in county jail,
  • a fine of up to four hundred dollars ($400), or
  • both county jail time and a fine.4
Legal Defenses

As you can see from the above description, the legal definition of disturbing the peace / breaching the peace is somewhat vague.

The good news is that the crime described in California's disturbing the peace statute is often difficult for prosecutors to prove...and easy for California defense attorneys to defend against. This is why it is critical to discuss your case with a good California criminal defense attorney who can help you avoid conviction.

Potential legal defenses to disturbing the peace charges may include:

  • You lacked criminal intent,
  • Your behavior was constitutionally protected, and
  • You were falsely accused.

Also, although disturbing the peace is a crime in and of itself, it is most frequently used as a plea bargaining tool.  This means that disturbing the peace is a charge that California criminal defense lawyers frequently request when trying to negotiate a reduced charge for their clients.

In order to help you better understand this offense, our California criminal defense lawyers will address the following:

If, after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. What is the Legal Definition of Disturbing the Peace?

The legal definition of "disturbing the peace" covers three main categories of behavior. Each of these is described in a subdivision of Penal Code 415 PC. We will examine each one separately.

1.1. Penal Code 415(1) unlawful fighting

"Unlawful fighting" is one form of disturbing the peace.

The legal definition of disturbing the peace through unlawful fighting consists of two facts (known as "elements of the crime"). Both of these elements must be proven for you to be guilty of this form of disturbing the peace. They are:

  1. that you willfully and unlawfully fought another person (or challenged another person to fight), and
  2. that the fight or challenge took place in a public place.5

"Willfully" means deliberately or on purpose.6

Example:

Rick is a San Francisco Giants fan. He spends a lot of time in a sports bar where many Giants fans hang out. One night, after having a few drinks at the bar, Rick sees Jorge walk in. Jorge is wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers sweatshirt.

Rick approaches Jorge and says some hostile things about the Dodgers. Then Rick challenges Jorge to a fight outside the bar.

Rick may be guilty of disturbing the peace...he willfully challenged Jorge to a fight, and he did it in a public place (a bar).

Bar fights are a common source of disturbing the peace -unlawful fighting charges.

If you fought only because you were either

  1. defending yourself, or
  2. defending someone else,

then you are not guilty of disturbing the peace.7 This is because self-defense as a legal defense under California criminal law allows you to reasonably defend yourself or another person when

  1. you reasonably believe that you or another person is about to suffer bodily harm,
  2. you reasonably believe that force is the only way to protect against that harm, and
  3. you use no more force than is reasonably necessary to defend against the danger.8

1.2. Penal Code 415(2) unreasonable noise

The second kind of disturbing the peace (also known as "breaching the peace") is "unreasonable noise."

The elements of the legal definition of disturbing the peace through unreasonable noise are as follows:

  1. that you willfully and maliciously caused loud and unreasonable noise, and
  2. that the noise disturbed another person.9

"Maliciously" means that you have to have either:

  • intended to do something wrongful, or
  • intended to annoy or injure someone else.10

You don't need to have intended to break the law, per se.

Also, there is a specific legal definition of what it means for your noise to "disturb another person." The noise needs to have:

  1. presented a danger of immediate violence, or
  2. been used for the purpose of disrupting lawful activities (rather than as a means to communicate).11

Because of the strict nature of these definitions and requirements, police don't frequently arrest people for disturbing the peace by maliciously causing unreasonable noise.  Music, loud cheers, games...these activities aren't typically engaged in for the purpose of "annoying" other people....nor do they present an immediate danger of violence.

However, if another person (or the police) asks you to stop making loud, unreasonable noise...and you don't...a judge and/or jury could infer that your conduct was both willful and malicious.12

Example:

Keith is being followed by several police officers working on a prostitution sting who believe he might be a pimp.

The officers follow Keith into a hotel late at night. Keith begins laughing very loudly in a hotel hallway, and the officers approach him.

Keith then yells obscenities, very loudly, at the officers. Keith's yelling causes multiple hotel guests to wake up and come out of their rooms.

Keith's behavior may have been disturbing the peace through unreasonable noise. His shouting obscenities at the officers was not meant to communicate with them (which he could have done in a normal tone of voice)...instead, it was used for the purpose of disrupting their lawful activities.13

1.3. Penal Code 415(3) offensive words

The last form of behavior prohibited by California's "disturbing the peace" law is what is known as "offensive words."

The legal definition of this form of disturbing the peace is that:

  1. you used offensive words which were inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction, and
  2. those words were spoken in a public place.14

What does it mean for words to be "inherently like to provoke an immediate violent reaction"? It means that:

  1. The speaker said something reasonably likely to provoke someone else to react violently, AND
  2. When s/he made the statement, there was a clear and present danger that the other person would immediately erupt into violence.

It doesn't matter whether the defendant intended to provoke a violent response from someone.15 However, if the defendant reasonably believed that his/her words were NOT likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction, s/he is not guilty of disturbing the peace.16

Offensive words and free speech

This offense is what is known as the "fighting words" exception to the right of free speech that is otherwise guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.17

California courts have held that the types of "offensive words" that California's "disturbing the peace" statute prohibits necessarily invite a breach of the peace.  The courts believe that these "fighting words" are never essential to the expression of ideas . . . and that any value they may have is significantly outweighed by society's interest in order and morality.18

Courts will determine what qualifies as "offensive words" on a case-by-case basis.19 Words that are vulgar, profane, rude, abusive, or disrespectful by themselves do not warrant prosecution for this offense.20

It is the context surrounding your "fighting words" that is critical.  You must speak the words in a provocative manner that is sure to provoke a violent response.21

Let's look at a few examples to better understand what conduct will and will not sustain a conviction of disturbing the peace for "fighting words" under Penal Code 415 PC.

Example: While the Vietnam War is going on, Paul walks into a courthouse wearing a jacket that says, "Fuck the draft." He is arrested for disturbing the peace, on the theory that the controversial words on his jacket might reasonably cause others to commit violence against him.But the Supreme Court of the United States held that Paul is not guilty of breaching the peace. Even though there was a slight chance someone might react violently to the words on Paul's jacket, that risk was very small...the words weren't inherently like to provoke a violent reaction.22
Example: John, a 16-year-old boy, screams "fucking bitch" at his neighbor Nancy as she drives past his house. John has been calling Nancy obscene names on a regular basis for about three years. This time, Nancy finds herself so enraged that she goes home and calls the police.

John is guilty of disturbing the peace for screaming at Nancy. His screaming at her was not designed to communicate anything social or political. In the past, John's words had made Nancy so angry that she had come after him with a baseball bat. What he said to Nancy was reasonably likely to provoke her to violence.23

Example: Alejandro witnesses a police officer arresting his uncle outside their house. Alejandro screams obscenities at the officer, tells him he'll never take his uncle, and challenges the officer to a fight.

Alejandro's conduct rose to the level of "fighting words" because his words were offensive and likely to provoke immediate violence...even though a police officer would presumably be less likely than the average citizen to take Alejandro up on his offer to fight. Alejandro has therefore committed the California crime of disturbing the peace.24

2. What are the penalties for Disturbing the Peace?

Disturbing the peace charges under Penal Code 415 PC is a wobbler. This means it may be brought either as

  • an infraction, or
  • a misdemeanor.25

The prosecutor decides whether to file a disturbing the peace charge as an
infraction or a misdemeanor. The prosecutor will usually make that decision based on:

  1. the facts of the case, and
  2. the defendant's criminal history.

Disturbing the peace / breaching the peace as an infraction carries a maximum fine of two hundred fifty dollars ($250). If you are convicted of disturbing the peace as an infraction, you will not serve any jail time.26

But if you are convicted of misdemeanor disturbing the peace, you could face the following penalties:

  1. Informal (misdemeanor) probation,
  2. A fine of up to four hundred dollars ($400), and/or
  3. Up to ninety (90) days in county jail.27
Img dtp white handcuffs

Penalties for disturbing the peace on school grounds

If you commit any of the disturbing the peace offenses prohibited under Penal Code 415 PC on school grounds...and you are not a registered student or employee at that school...the crime of disturbing the peace will necessarily be a misdemeanor (not an infraction).28 This means the penalties could include a maximum 90-day county jail sentence and a maximum $400 fine.

However, if you have been previously convicted of this offense...or of another criminal offense that took place upon school grounds...you could face a minimum (not maximum) jail sentence of 90 days . . . and your maximum fine could increase to one thousand dollars ($1,000).29

3. Legal Defenses Against a California Disturbing the Peace Charge

There are a variety of legal defenses that a skilled California criminal defense attorney could present on your behalf to defend against a disturbing the peace charge.  Some of the most common of these legal defenses are:

You lacked the intent to disturb the peace or breach the peace

If you didn't act

  1. willfully,
  2. maliciously, or
  3. with the intent of inciting violence,

you are most likely not guilty of disturbing the peace.30

With respect to unlawful fighting, if you fought to protect yourself or someone else, you are innocent . . . because you acted in self-defense or in defense of another.31

With respect to unlawful and unreasonable noise, if you didn't intend to disturb or annoy others with your activity, you are not criminally liable for the offense of disturbing the peace.32

With respect to "fighting words," if you reasonably and honestly believed that the words you spoke were not likely to provoke a violent reaction, you have not broken the law.33

You were engaged in a constitutionally protected activity

If your words or conduct were protected by your right to free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution . . . you are not guilty of disturbing the peace.

For example, you may be arrested under California's disturbing the peace statute for

  • participating in a political protest.
  • wearing a t-shirt that threatens violence toward people who disagree with you on a political issue, or
  • loudly making a political or religious speech with a bullhorn in a public place.

In cases like these, you may be able to challenge the disturbing the peace / breach of the peace charge on the grounds that your activity was protected speech.

You were falsely accused and wrongly arrested

Of course, if you are falsely accused of disturbing the peace...if you didn't do it...you should not be criminally liable under Penal Code 415 PC.

There are a number of reasons why someone may falsely accuse you of disturbing the peace.  These could include:

  • You had a falling out with a spiteful neighbor;
  • You embarrassed someone who sought revenge by claiming that you challenged him/her to a fight; or
  • You had a run-in with the police and...because the officer simply didn't like your attitude...he wanted to charge you with something.

As West Covina criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse34 explains,

"Unfortunately, it's not at all uncommon for people to falsely accuse other people of crimes.  Anger, revenge . . . or even simple dislike . . . can frequently lead to false accusations and even wrongful convictions.  It's my job to set the record straight and to demonstrate my client's true innocence."

4. How is 415 PC Used as a Plea Bargaining Tool?

While disturbing the peace is a crime in and of itself, California criminal defense lawyers often use it as a negotiating tool for plea bargains.

As previously stated, a conviction for Penal Code 415 PC carries a maximum jail sentence of 90 days and a maximum $400 fine.35 In reality, most people who are convicted of this offense pay a small fine and serve little (or more typically no) jail time.

A good California defense lawyer can frequently negotiate a disturbing the peace charge in lieu of more serious offenses which carry stiffer penalties...and which may carry social stigma that can impact your reputation, career, and family. Some of these more serious offenses include:

Example: Paul and his live-in girlfriend Marie get into a serious fight outside of a bar. Their yelling and screaming at each other disturbs other bar patrons who are outside smoking, and someone calls the police. The fight gets physical when Marie scratches Paul...and he then slaps her in the face.

Paul is initially arrested for domestic battery, a form of California domestic violence. However, his lawyer negotiates with the prosecutor, who agrees to reduce the charge to one of breaching the peace through unreasonable noise.

However, when a disturbing the peace charge is substituted for one of these more serious offenses in a plea bargain, you may have to serve some jail time and/or pay a higher fine . . . in exchange for the reduced charge . . . than you would for a more typical disturbing the peace conviction. But, then again, you may not.

5. History and Context of Penal Code 415 PC (California's Disturbing the Peace Statute)

California "disturbing the peace" laws were first enacted in 1872.40 Sometimes referred to as "breach of the peace," these California disorderly conduct laws are designed to protect against just that...disorderly conduct.

Since its creation, the most noteworthy change to California's "disturbing the peace" law was made to the subdivision dealing with "fighting words."  A 1976 amendment changed the statute from punishing "[a]ny person who uses offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to produce a violent reaction" . . . to "[a]ny person who uses offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction."41

The California Legislature substituted these words in order to ensure that the statute would be constitutional under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.42

But it remains the case that California "disturbing the peace" laws are frequently criticized for being vague and ambiguous.  Those who allegedly violate Penal Code 415 PC are often surprised and caught off-guard.

It's important to be aware that many laws regarding loud noise (for example, hosting a loud party, or performing construction during unreasonable hours) are typically enforced through local municipal codes...and don't involve criminal charges.  Criminal "disturbing the peace" laws are generally reserved for more serious situations.

6. Penal Code 415 PC and Related Offenses

There are several offenses that...because of their nature...are often charged in connection with a disturbing the peace allegation.  Some of these include (but are not limited to):

6.1. California Penal Code 242 PC "battery"

A Penal Code 242 PC "battery" takes place when you willfully and unlawfully use force or violence upon another person.43 You don't need to injure the other person to be guilty of battery.

Therefore, if you fight another person in a public place, prosecutors could charge you with BOTH disturbing the peace under Penal Code 415(1) PC . . . AND Penal Code 242 PC battery.

If convicted of battery, you face misdemeanor penalties of up to six (6) months in county jail and a fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).44 And if the alleged victim suffers great bodily injury, the crime becomes a wobbler...and can land you with a felony and a custody sentence of up to four (4) years!45

6.2. California Penal Code 602 PC "trespass"

Penal Code 602 PC "trespass" takes place when you enter or remain on someone else's property without the right to do so.46 Trespass is typically a misdemeanor).47

Most disturbing the peace violations occur

  1. while on public property, or
  2. while on private property that is open to the public.

So the behavior that is considered a breach of the peace usually happens in a place where you initially had the right to be.  BUT, if the owner of the property asks you to leave...and you then violate any provisions of Penal Code 415 PC...you may be guilty of both trespass and disturbing the peace.

If, for example, you are in a store causing a disturbance and refuse to leave after the owner asks you to do so, you could face both disturbing the peace charges and trespass charges.

6.3. California Penal Code 148(a) PC "resisting arrest"

Penal Code 148(a) PC "resisting arrest" takes place when you resist, delay, or otherwise obstruct a law enforcement officer from performing his/her professional duties.48 The crime of resisting arrest in California is a misdemeanor and can lead to up to one (1) year in county jail.49

Example:

Tom is a black man driving his car through a predominantly white area. A policeman pulls him over and claims that he was speeding. Tom is quite sure that he was not speeding and is very angry about the accusation.

The officer asks Tom for his license. But, in his anger, Tom instead challenges the officer to a fight.

Tom may be charged both with resisting arrest and with disturbing the peace (for unlawfully challenging the officer to a fight).

6.4. California Penal Code 302 PC "disturbing a religious meeting"

Penal Code 302 PC disturbing a religious meeting is a separate offense in California.

You violate California's law against disturbing a religious meeting when you intentionally use profane discourse, obscene behavior or unnecessary noise to disturb a religious service in a tax-exempt house of worship.50

So in certain circumstances, a defendant who creates a disturbance in a church, synagogue or other religious location could be charged with both disturbing the peace and disturbing a religious meeting.

PC 302 is a misdemeanor with a maximum county jail sentence of one (1) year.51

6.5. California Penal Code 372 and 373a PC "creating a public nuisance"

The crime of "creating or maintaining a public nuisance" under Penal Code 372 and 373a PC has some overlap with "disturbing the peace."52

A "public nuisance" is something that is injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property. It also needs either to affect a considerable number of people or to interfere with public use of a waterway, street or park.53

Loud noise coming from someone's home could lead to charges either under California's disturbing the peace law or under one of California's public nuisance laws. Creating or maintaining a public nuisance is a misdemeanor.54

Call Us for Help...

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Call us for help

If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 415 PC disturbing the peace and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Arrested in Nevada? See our article on Nevada breach of peace laws.

Arrested in Colorado? See our article on Colorado disorderly conduct laws.

Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 415 PC - Fighting; noise; offensive words [Disturbing the Peace].  ("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.")
  2. See same, Disturbing the peace.
  3. See same, Disturbing the peace.
    See also California Penal Code 17 
  4. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instruction ("CALCRIM") 2688 
  5. See same, Disturbing the peace: Fighting or challenging someone to fight.  ("[3 The defendant did not act (in self-defense/ [or] in defense of someone else)(;/.)]")
  6. CALCRIM 3470 - Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another (Non-Homicide). 
  7. CALCRIM 2689 - Disturbing the Peace: Loud and Unreasonable Noise.  ("To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: [1] The defendant maliciously and willfully disturbed another person by causing loud and unreasonable noise....")
  8. See same
  9. See same
    See also People v. Superior Court (Commons) (1982), 135 Cal.App.3d 812, 817. 
  10. People v. Vaughan (1944) 65 Cal.App.2d Supp. 844, 851. 
  11. People v. Superior Court (Commons) (1982), 135 Cal.App.3d 812, 817. 
  12. CALCRIM 2690 - Disturbing the Peace: Offensive words. 
  13. See same, Disturbing the Peace: Offensive words.
  14. See same, Disturbing the Peace: Offensive words.
  15. United States Constitution: First Amendment.  
  16. In re Alejandro G. (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 44, 47.  
  17. See same at 48.  
  18. Jefferson v. Superior Court (1975) 51 Cal.App.3d 721, 724.  
  19. See same at 725. 
  20. Cohen v. California (1971) 403 U.S. 15, 23.
  21. In re John V. (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 761, 767-68.  
  22. In re Alejandro G. (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 44, 50.  
  23. California Penal Code 415 
  24. California Penal Code 19.8 PC
  25. California Penal Code 415 PC - Disturbing the peace, endnote 1, above.
  26. California Penal Code 415.5 - Disturbing the peace at a school. 
  27. See same, Disturbing the peace at a school.  
  28. California Penal Code 415 PC - Disturbing the peace, endnote 1, above.
  29. CALCRIM 2688 
  30. CALCRIM 2689 
  31. In re John V. (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 761, 770. 
  32. Our West Covina criminal defense attorneys have successfully defended numerous clients charged with a wide range of California crimes, including Penal Code 415 PC disturbing the peace.  We represent clients at a number of locations of the California courts, including the Rancho Cucamonga courthouse, the Fontana courthouse, the Chino courthouse, the Pasadena courthouse, the Burbank courthouse, the Glendale courthouse, the Alhambra courthouse, and the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles.
  33. California Penal Code 415 PC - Disturbing the peace, endnote 1, above.
  34. California Penal Code 647(a) - Lewd conduct in public 
  35. California Penal Code 647(b) - Prostitution / solicitation 
  36. California domestic violence charges punish a variety of offenses that are committed against one's current or former spouse, roommate, or significant other.  If committed against one of these persons, a domestic violence Penal Code 415 PC "disturbing the peace" charge may be filed.
  37. California Penal Code 422 PC - Criminal threats 
  38. California Penal Code 415 -- Disturbing the peace.  Historical and Statutory notes.  ("Former § 415, enacted in 1872, amended by Code Am.1877-8, c. 299, § 1, relating to disturbing the peace with noise, fighting, etc., was repealed by Stats.1974, c. 1263, p. 2742, § 1.")
  39. In re John V. (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 761, 768.  
  40. See same.
  41. California Penal Code 242 PC - Battery 
  42. California Penal Code 243 PC - Battery; punishment 
  43. See same. ("(d) When a battery is committed against any person and serious bodily injury is inflicted on the person, the battery is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, three, or four years.")
  44. California Penal Code 602 
  45. See same.
  46. California Penal Code 148 
  47. See same.
  48. Penal Code 302 PC - Disturbing a religious meeting 
  49. See same.
  50. Penal Code 272 and 273a PC - Creating or maintaining a public nuisance 
  51. Penal Code 270 PC - Definition of a public nuisance.
  52. Penal Code 272 and 273a PC - Creating or maintaining a public nuisance

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