The crime of disturbing the peace is a “catch-all” statute in most jurisdictions, including Michigan, that prohibits any disorder in a public space through a person’s actions. The idea is to punish loud and noisy conduct that is not specifically proscribed in another criminal statute. Some examples of behavior amounting to a disturbance of the peace in a public place includes using profanity, making loud and unreasonable noises or challenging another person to a fight.
The Michigan statute for disturbing the peace, formally called “disturbance of lawful meetings” under MCL 750.170, reads as follows:
- “Any person who shall make or excite any disturbance or contention in any tavern, store or grocery, manufacturing establishment or any other business place or in any street, lane, alley, highway, public building, grounds or park, or at any election or other public meeting where citizens are peaceably and lawfully assembled, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
- Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail, or a fine up to $500.00, or both.
Nearly all cities, townships and municipalities in Michigan has a similar disturbing the peace ordinance that may be broader in scope than the state statute. More prosecutions for disturbing the peace tend to occur at the municipal level because the violations addressed are often for low-level, non-violent conduct. For example, the City of Monroe, Michigan has an ordinance that prohibits “[m]aking a loud, boisterous or unseemly noise or disturbance to the annoyance of the peaceable residents nearby.” §492-1(B)(9). The ordinance further defines “disturbance” as “something less than threats of violence…” but “…an interruption of peace and quiet; a violation of public order and decorum; or an interference with or hindrance of a person in pursuit of his or her lawful right or occupation.” §492-1(A). This catch-all law is so broad that it gives the Monroe City Police and the prosecuting attorney the power to step into any situation where another member of the public was annoyed by the defendant’s actions.
A conviction for disturbing the peace requires that the defendant’s conduct occur in a “public place”. A public place generally includes an enclosed space where the general public is invited to gather for purposes of business, entertainment or other lawful purposes. City of Westland v Okopski, 208 Mich App 66, 75; 527 NW2d 780 (1994). A juvenile’s conviction for disturbing the peace was reversed where the prosecutor did not show sufficient evidence that the juvenile’s acts occurred in a “public place”. In re Gaston, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued July 6th, 2010 (Docket No. 290982). Here, the juvenile was making a disturbance in the living quarters of a juvenile residential facility where he had been placed following other delinquency proceedings. The Michigan Court of Appeals determined that this detention facility was not open to the general public and, therefore, does not meet the definition of a “public place”.
The disturbing the peace statute is a target for First Amendment challenges because the legal command to avoid “disturbance” or “contention” often conflict with free speech and freedom of assembly rights. In Leonard v. Robinson, 477 F.3d 347 (6th Cir. 2007, the Plaintiff filed a 42 U.S.C. §1983 action against the police officer that arrested him at a township meeting for disturbing the peace. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “no reasonable officer would have found probable cause to arrest [the plaintiff] solely for uttering “goddamn” while addressing the township board because the First Amendment protects this sort of uninhibited debate…”.
However, the First Amendment is not an absolute shield if the trial court believes that the disruptive actions were intended to upset the normal flow of public operations rather than engage in protected speech. In People v Baker, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued February 14th, 2019 (Docket No. 340352, 340752), the Defendant and his friend were angry about an encounter with Dearborn City Police earlier in the day and decided to later confront the police by walking into their station with military-style ballistic gear. The Defendant had a camera and was recording his expression of ideas and beliefs on the site. Although the Defendant was unarmed, there was no way for a reasonable police officer observing him to be certain due to his military dress. Therefore, it was reasonable for the police to assume he was armed and dangerous despite the defendant’s stated intention that he wanted to protest. The Michigan Court of Appeals held that the evidence was enough for the jury to convict for disturbing the peace because the defendant “intended to disrupt the normal operation of the police station and actually did disrupt its normal operation.”
The disturbing the peace statute has come under constitutional scrutiny and the Michigan Court of Appeals has found some of the language therein to be unconstitutional. In People v Purifoy, 34 Mich App 318; 191 NW2d 63 (1971), the defendant was convicted of disturbing the peace for throwing rocks at police officers during a public disturbance. The defendant challenged his conviction on appeal on the basis that the language “excite any contention” criminalizes conduct that simply may excite a strong or violent opposition from others. The Court of Appeals agreed and determined that the “excite any contention” language was unconstitutionally vague, overbroad and should be read out of the statute. Id at 20-21. This position was affirmed in People v Vandenberg, 307 Mich App 57; 859 NW2d 229 (2014), where the defendant was convicted of disturbing the peace after a jury trial where the judge instructed the jury on the offense using the “excite any contention” language. Despite that this defendant was being loud and making a scene inside of a courthouse, the fact that the jury could have found guilt on an unconstitutional basis was enough to reverse the conviction.
A misdemeanor conviction can be embarrassing and may impact future employment or residential opportunities. If you are charged with disturbing the peace, you need to enlist the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney that will aggressively fight for your rights and help you avoid this blemish on your record. If you or a loved one are facing accusations of disturbing the peace or any other criminal offense, do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC to start your best defense today.