The recent protests across the United States following the death of George Floyd have led to numerous discussions about the extent of local, state, and federal jurisdiction. Oftentimes, law enforcement will arrest and charge protestors for disturbing the peace and even going as far as saying that the suspects were inciting riots. However, there are several key differences between disturbing the peace and peacefully protesting that an attorney can take into account when advocating for a defendant’s rights in the state of California.
What Is Disturbing the Peace?
In the state of California, disturbing the peace is defined as a violation of California Penal Code 415 PC, which involves:
- Fighting or challenging a person to a fight unlawfully
- Maliciously and willfully disturbing another person by using loud and unreasonable noise, including music or shouting
- Using offensive words in a public place in order to provoke a violent response
Traditionally, most people would imagine disturbing the peace as involving public spaces like a mall where individuals are loudly arguing with little regard to others around them or a neighbor who plays their music too loud. However, these are often only mild disturbances that do not require law enforcement to get involved unless the situation has the potential to turn violent. A key element of these charges is that the defendant was attempting to incite violence, commit violence, or actively disturb another individual.
Does Disturbing the Peace Apply to Protests?
Protests can become loud and definitely constitute the broad concept of “disturbing the peace,” but many protests are protected under the first amendment. Individuals are allowed to legally gather in California in order to make their voices heard and speak out against injustices. Sadly, law enforcement may not always see it that way and can charge a protestor with disturbing the peace even when they have not fulfilled the criteria of the crime.
When this charge is brought up with regards to protest, there are several situations that can occur:
- A large crowd is loudly chanting or singing a particular message
- A large crowd is loudly yelling at a press conference in order to keep the speaker from being heard
- An individual or crowd was yelling at an officer when they are attempting to arrest a suspect
- An individual or a crowd is inciting the police to attack them
- An individual or a crowd inciting a riot
- A protestor assaulted a bystander or law enforcement officer
In these situations, only the first one is protected under the first amendment; in the other situations, California courts may find you have violated Penal Code 415 PC and charge you with disturbing the peace.
Understanding the First Amendment
Under the first amendment, you are allowed to lawfully assemble with a group of individuals in order to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In turn, counter-protestors are also allowed to respond to your protest peacefully. In an ideal world, the police would only separate the two groups, protect local properties, and de-escalate fights. However, the past few years have shown that this is not always the case, and many protestors have faced significant jail time and fines. While disturbing the peace can be charged as an infraction or misdemeanor in California, it is not uncommon for you to also face charges of resisting arrest, assault, violating a local curfew, or rioting. These can add a significant amount of jail time to your sentence and severally damage your livelihood if you face felony charges.
When you are arrested at a protest, it is important to know that you do have a right to an attorney and should exercise it as soon as possible to get the best defense as possible. While some cities like Los Angeles are declining to file disturbing the peace charges against protestors, many are facing severe charges. But these charges can be beaten with the right attorney.
If you or someone you love has been charged with disturbing the peace, reach out to Law Office of Michael L. Guisti. Our lead Orange County criminal defense attorney has an extensive record protecting the rights of Southern California residents and can immediately start working on your case the moment you are arrested. Call us at (714) 530-9690 or toll-free at (888) 478-8999 to begin building a defense strategy.