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What Is Disturbing the Peace (PC 415)? Defenses?

For one who is unfamiliar with California’s criminal courts, the charge of disturbing the peace may conjure up thoughts of a homeless man shouting obscenities at passing cars on a busy street.  It may conjure up ideas that the charge is for someone who plays his stereo too loud at a party, disturbing neighbors late at night.  It may also be two folks arguing too loud in a restaurant.
The Point of This Article:  Disturbing the peace (Penal Code § 415) can be making a loud noise that annoys others, fighting in public or challenging another to a fight, or using “fighting words” likely to provoke an immediate, violent response.  It can be charged as a misdemeanor or infraction, depending upon one’s prior history and the facts of the case.
For those familiar with our criminal justice system, disturbing the peace can appropriately be called the “catch basin of minor offenses.”  It is how a variety of low level charges are negotiated to a plea bargain to help a defendant avoid employment or immigration consequences or having a criminal record for a lapse of judgment.  

For example, public intoxication, public urination (Penal Code § 314), criminal threats (Penal Code § 422), trespassing (Penal Code § 602), resisting arrest (Penal Code § 148(a)), lewd conduct in public (Penal Code § 647(a), prostitution or solicitation of prostitution (Penal Code § 647(b)) and sometimes minor shoplifting are often resolved for a charge of violating Penal Code § 415.  

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Penal Code § 415 defines disturbing the peace in three ways.  First, it is defined as willfully fighting in public, or willfully challenging another person to a fight in public.  Penal Code § 415(1).  Second, 415(2) identifies “unreasonable noise” as willfully and maliciously disturbing the peace when the noise annoys or disturbs another person.  Third, disturbing the peace includes, under 415(3), using “fighting words” that are “inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction” and directing such words at another person in a public place.

Disturbing the peace can be charged as either a misdemeanor or as an infraction.  When an infraction is accepted by defendant, the consequences are usually just a monetary fine payable to the court clerk’s office.  

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Sometimes, a prosecutor will offer defendant a chance to “earn an infraction” by first attending a certain number of AA meetings, performing a certain number of hours of community service or some other thing.  If defendant completes such tasks, the prosecutor will amend the complaint to allege an infraction of Penal Code § 415, to which defendant will plead “no contest” to, perhaps with some relief.

A conviction for misdemeanor disturbing the peace carries with it a maximum sentence of ninety days in county jail and/or a $500 fine.  It merits mention in this regard that most cases resolved via plea bargain for disturbing the peace do involve summary probation and no jail time.  However, when the case is filed as a violation of Penal Code § 415 because the case facts do “fit” the statute, it is much more likely that jail time and a fine will be part of the disposition.

If the offense leads to a second conviction for disturbing the peace and the offense takes place on school property, there is a mandatory minimum county jail sentence of ten days in county jail to a maximum of six months, as well as a $1,000 fine.  When the defendant is convicted a third or more time of violating § 415, he or she faces a minimum of ninety days in county jail and a maximum of six months in county jail, as well as a $1,000 fine.  

For more information about disturbing the peace, click on the following articles:
  1. What Is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and an Infraction?
  2. What Is Summary Probation?
  3. Juvenile’s Conviction for Disturbing the Peace under Penal Code § 415 (2) While Stealing a Cell Phone Not a First Amendment Violation
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