Penal Code 415 PC – Disturbing the Peace in California

Updated

Penal Code 415 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of “disturbing the peace.” A person commits this offense when he disturbs someone with loud music, or fights someone or uses offensive words in public.

The code section 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.”

Examples

  • 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.

Defenses

A defendant may contest a disturbing the peace charge with a legal defense. Common defenses include:

  • no criminal intent,
  • behavior was constitutionally protected, and/or
  • falsely accused.

Penalties

A violation of 415 PC is a wobblette offense. This means that a prosecutor can charge it as either:

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 highlight the following in this article:

two men fighting outside
PC 415 makes it a crime to unlawfully fight in a public place.

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:

  1. unlawfully fighting in a public place,
  2. disturbing someone with loud and unreasonable noise, and
  3. 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:

  1. the accused willfully and unlawfully fought another person (or challenged another person to a fight)2, and
  2. 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:

  1. reasonably believed that he, or someone else, was about to suffer bodily harm,
  2. reasonably believed that force was necessary for protection, and
  3. used no more force than necessary to defend against the danger.5

1.2. Unreasonable noise – PC 415(2)

A person is guilty of disturbing the peace through unreasonable noise if two things are true. These are:

  1. he willfully and maliciously caused loud and unreasonable noise, and
  2. 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:

  1. a clear and present danger of immediate violence, or
  2. 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 police 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:

  1. the accused used offensive words which were likely to provoke a violent reaction, and
  2. the defendant used the words in a public place.9

A person uses offensive words “likely to provoke a violent reaction” if:

  1. he says something that is reasonably likely to provoke someone else to react violently, and
  2. 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:

  1. told the dad that his daughter “broke his heart, and
  2. reasonably believed his words would not provoke a violent response.

2. Are there defenses to disturbing the peace?

A defendant can challenge a disturbing the peace charge with a legal defense.

Three common defenses are:

  1. no criminal intent,
  2. behavior was constitutionally protected, and/or
  3. falsely accused.

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 disturbing the peace, per 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 disturbing the peace. 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.

money under a gavel
A Penal Code 415 conviction can result in a fine and/or jail time

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:

  • custody in county jail for up to 90 days,
  • a fine of up to $400, or
  • both jail time and a fine.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.”

Disturbing the peace, 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.

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 of disturbing the peace 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 disturbing the peace charge in lieu of a more serious offense, such as:

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:

  1. battery – PC 242,
  2. trespass – PC 602, and
  3. resisting arrest – PC 148.

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:

  1. enters, or remains on, someone else's property, and
  2. 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...

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For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

For information on disturbing the peace charges in Nevada, please see our article on “'Disturbing the Peace' in Nevada (NRS 203.010).”


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 415 PC.

  2. 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.

  3. CALCRIM No. 2688. Disturbing the Peace: Fighting or Challenging Someone to Fight. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).

  4. People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 102.

  5. CALCRIM 3470 - Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another (Non-Homicide).

  6. CALCRIM No. 2689. Disturbing the Peace: Loud and Unreasonable Noise. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).

  7. See same.

  8. See same. See also In re Brown (1973) 9 Cal.3d 612.

  9. CALCRIM No. 2690. Disturbing the Peace: Offensive Words. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).

  10. See same. See also In re Brown (1973) 9 Cal.3d 612; and, In re Alejandro G. (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 44.

  11. Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) 310 U.S. 296.

  12. In re John V. (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 761.

  13. See, for example, Rosenbaum v. City & County of San Francisco (2007) 484 F.3d 1142.

  14. California Penal Code 415 PC.

  15. California Penal Code 1203.4 PC.

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