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What is Disorderly Conduct?

Posted on: April 30, 2021

Disorderly conduct is an all-encompassing criminal charge that police often use to round up and arrest people at large public disturbances. The definition of disorderly conduct varies widely from state to state and in each municipality. This broad term generally refers to intentional public conduct that is likely to alarm, anger, or annoy other people. Often the charge of disorderly conduct is added to more serious charges. By itself, disorderly conduct is similar to a misdemeanor, and a guilty plea or conviction comes with penalties that include jail time and fines. Once charged, a person can be arrested, fingerprinted, and locked up while awaiting trial.

New Jersey Disorderly Conduct Laws

In New Jersey, the legal term for disorderly conduct is a petty disorderly persons charge arising from a breach of the peace. It consists of two broad categories: improper behavior and using offensive language.

Examples of improper behavior include:

  • Fighting
  • Threatening behavior
  • Disturbing an assembly
  • Violent behavior
  • Tumultuous behavior
  • Creating by any act dangerous or hazardous conditions that serve no legitimate purpose of the actor

Offensive language is any unreasonably loud, offensively coarse, or abusive language directed to any person present in a public place. Of course, circumstances are crucial in determining exactly what is deemed unreasonable and offensive in a public place. In legal terms, this is described as the circumstances of the person present and the setting of the utterance. For example, language that might be shouted while in a crowd at a boxing match may not be appropriate in a place of business.

Some people mistakenly think that the First Amendment right to free speech protects whatever they say in public. However, this is not the case. Using offensive language in disregard of others in a public space is classified as disorderly conduct. A public space is defined as a place to which the public or a substantial group has access such as the following:

  • Schools
  • Places of business or amusement
  • Apartment houses
  • Prisons
  • Highways
  • Transport facilities
  • Concert halls
  • Sports stadiums
  • Neighborhoods

Proving Disorderly Conduct

Because of the broad nature of the term disorderly conduct, police often use it as a catch-all to round up everyone in the near vicinity of a public disturbance. Although some individuals may truly be guilty of such behaviors, others have the misfortune of merely having been nearby during the incident or are targets of racial profiling or personal bias. In some instances, a person who is defending themselves may be accused of fighting in public and charged with disorderly conduct. It is easier for law enforcement to hand out citations to everyone on the scene than to sort out the circumstances and resolve the situation.

New Jersey courts have ruled frequently on how the law can be applied when it comes to disorderly conduct charges. For instance, being uncooperative, loud, and argumentative with police officers, even to the point of preventing the officer from performing his or her duties, cannot be classified on its own as disorderly conduct. A fight must involve two or more people. Public means a plurality of persons must be inconvenienced, annoyed, or alarmed. Engaging in threats requires both physical and verbal threatening behavior. The court has defined tumultuous behavior as a disorderly and violent movement coupled with the agitation and uproar of a crowd.

With regard to a charge of disorderly conduct for offensive language, there are also standards that must be met. Being verbally abusive is not in and of itself illegal. It does not qualify as disorderly conduct unless it occurs in a public place and is inciteful to others present that hear it. Likewise, offensive language that is specifically directed at another person does not meet the standard for public incitement.

The average person facing charges of disorderly conduct may not be aware of such rulings. Maybe they were attending a protest that turned chaotic, or they were an onlooker who got swept up into a group that was charged and arrested. Or perhaps they were only trying to defend themselves from harm. Because a permanent criminal record is so damaging to a person’s future, it is crucial to consult immediately with an experienced lawyer who can evaluate the circumstances surrounding the charges and possibly avoid the kind of penalties that come with a conviction for disorderly conduct.

What are the Penalties in New Jersey for Disorderly Conduct?

If convicted, those facing disorderly conduct charges in New Jersey may find themselves facing a maximum fine of $1000 and up to six months in jail plus possible restitution to the victim. If the defendant used a motor vehicle during the offense, their license to drive may be revoked for up to two years. New Jersey also requires a payment to the Victims of Crime Compensation Board (VCCB) and to the Safe Neighborhood Services Fund. It is important to note that a conviction for disorderly conduct charges goes on a person’s permanent criminal record, which can have negative effects for everything from buying a house to employment applications. Being convicted of a crime affects a person’s professional reputation and social standing and also has emotional effects on their own feelings of self-worth and how their family and acquaintances view them.

Can a Charge of Disorderly Conduct be Expunged from My Record?

As soon as a person is charged with disorderly conducted and arrested, they will be taken in for fingerprinting and processing. This all goes onto their record and is expunged only if the charge is dismissed completely. Where applicable, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can demonstrate that the charges were unwarranted and get them dismissed. Grounds for dismissal can be a lack of probable cause; improper arrest methods such as the failure to read the defendant his or her Miranda rights against self-incrimination; mistaken identity at the time of arrest; and bias, which could be racial, ethnic, age, gender, or socioeconomic.

It is possible in some cases to have the charge downgraded to a municipal ordinance violation, in which case the arrest record may be expunged after two years. A good lawyer may accomplish this for a client by negotiating with the prosecutor for a favorable plea agreement that amends the charge down to a municipal or borough ordinance violation instead of a criminal offense. The case is resolved through the payment of a fine.

Finally, there are circumstances under which the defendant enters a conditional dismissal program and at the end of a probational period the charges are dismissed, and the arrest record may be expunged six months thereafter. A defendant may enter the conditional dismissal program only if they have no previous conviction or prior diversion. In other words, they are in this arrangement for the first time and have not been in a similar program such as pretrial intervention, drug court, or conditional discharge in another state. The defendant must not be charged under the New Jersey Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987 with any disorderly persons offense or petty disorderly offense. During the probation period for this program, the defendant must remain arrest-free for a year and pay all fines and court costs. Only then will the record be expunged.

Disorderly conduct is an extremely broad charge that lends itself to abuse in the wrong hands. Everyone should know their rights under the law and seek experienced counsel before signing any plea agreement.

Monmouth County Criminal Defense Lawyers at Ellis Law Advocate for Those Charged with Disorderly Conduct

Charges of disorderly conduct could become a permanent stain on your record without the experienced Monmouth County criminal defense lawyers at Ellis Law at your side. We provide skilled personalized legal representation for each and every client and will fight to make sure your rights are protected.  Call us at 732-308-0200 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Freehold, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.