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Disturbing the Peace in California


In California, disturbing the peace can be charged as a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a maximum jail sentence of 90 days and/or a fine of up to $400. A person can be charged with disturbing the peace in three ways: fighting in a public place, trying to disturb someone with loud and unreasonable noise, or using offensive language in a public place.  

Let’s take a closer look at each situation. 

Fighting in Public 

One of the most common ways to be charged with disturbing the peace is by fighting another person in a public place, such as inside or outside a bar or a club. All parties involved in a fight can face charges. 

To be convicted of disturbing the peace for fighting, the prosecution must prove that (1) you willfully and unlawfully fought someone else or challenged another person to a fight, and (2) either the fight or challenge occurred in a public place. “Willfully” means committing an act deliberately or on purpose. 

You can claim self-defense if all the following circumstances apply: 

  • You reasonably believed that you or another person were about to suffer bodily injury 

  • You reasonably believed that using force was the only means of protecting yourself or another person from suffering injury 

  • You used no more face than reasonably necessary to defend yourself from harm 

Unreasonable Noise 

To be convicted of disturbing the peace for causing loud and unreasonable noise, the prosecution must prove that (1) you willfully and maliciously caused loud and unreasonable noise, and (2) the noise disturbed someone else. “Maliciously” means acting with the intent to commit a wrongful act or annoy another person. 

In order to disturb someone by “causing loud and unreasonable noise,” there must be one of two things: a clear and present danger of immediate violence, or the purpose of the noise is to disrupt lawful activities, as opposed to being used as a means of communication. 

When it comes to making a political speech at a protest, demonstration, or rally that is loud and “disturbs” the residents in the area, this is an example of protected speech since it is lawful for people to exercise their right of free speech and lawful assembly. 

Offensive Words 

To be convicted of disturbing the peace for using offensive words, the prosecution must prove that (1) you used offensive words that were inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction, and (2) you were in the public place when you used those words.  

There are certain words that are “inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction,” such as repeatedly using a racist term against someone of a specific ethnic group or insulting a loved one. There must also be a clear and present danger that the other person will immediately inflict violence. 

If you have been charged with disturbing the peace in Santa Barbara, call Appel & Morse at (805) 467-6060 or fill out our online contact form today to schedule a free consultation. Get two former prosecutors on your side! 

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