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Beating Disorderly Conduct Charges in Pennsylvania—18 Pa.C.S. § 5503

Disorderly conduct charges in Pennsylvania, found at 18 Pa.C.S. § 5503, are based on a police officer’s claim that you have disturbed the peace by unruly or inappropriate behavior. Disorderly conduct, sometimes called “DC” for short, can be charged as a summary offense, or as a misdemeanor. In many cases, disorderly conduct is a vague charge that an officer gives someone when the officer feels they have done something wrong, but isn’t sure what crime to charge. Disorderly conduct charges often run headlong into the protections of the First Amendment.

To be guilty of a crime, the government must show that you did something specifically prohibited by a statute, and the disorderly conduct statute, though vague, is no exception. To learn more about how to defend your innocence, watch criminal defense attorney Joel Ready in the video below, or continue reading.

Disorderly conduct charges fall into four different categories, and the government will charge you with doing one of the following things.

1. You engaged in fighting, threats, or violent behavior.

The most common reason for disorderly conduct is fighting or threats of violence. Scuffles, minor assaults, threats, yelling and more are charged under this section. Because harassment charges, simple assault and aggravated assault charges are available to police officers to use for more serious fights and assaults, disorderly conduct charges usually result from relatively minor encounters where no one is injured.

In defending charges, you and your attorney will gather testimony, demonstrate that the other side was the aggressor, and show that you were “privileged” to use force under the circumstances due to self-defense, defense of others, or because your force was reasonably necessary to remove someone from your property. Understanding the caselaw in these areas will help you defend yourself. As always, the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt—the highest standard of proof in law.

2. You made “unreasonable noise.”

The police also charge disorderly conduct for unreasonable noise—a stunningly vague standard often invoked by officers who are annoyed with someone’s actions. A violation of a noise ordinance could be unreasonable—but then it would be charged as a noise ordinance violation. Nonetheless, officers will sometimes resort to this section when they’re not sure what to charge you with. In theory, this part of the statute is focused on loud aggressive harassing noises in a time that such noise would not otherwise be prohibited.

The First Amendment protects expression, although subject to “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions. In other words, an officer can charge you based on noise if that is truly the only reason for his charges. But if he’s really just upset about what you said, the First Amendment prohibits his charges as retaliation. In a number of cases, Cornerstone Law Firm’s criminal defense attorneys have seen officers charge someone with disorderly conduct because they shouted something angrily about police misconduct, or protested in a way the officer didn’t like. This is not a proper disorderly conduct charge, and it can be challenged before a judge.

3. You used “obscene” language or gestures.

You may also face charges if an officer says you cussed or used an obscene gesture. But once again, the First Amendment comes into play. The Supreme Court has routinely ruled that even cuss words have expressive features worth protecting, and the government may not restrict you from unpopular speech just because cuss words are involved. Depending on which county in Pennsylvania your charges are filed, you may have more or less success in defending on First Amendment grounds where cussing is involved.

The law does not define obscenity, and there seems to be some gray area about what cuss words and gestures are included.

4. You created a hazardous or “physically offensive condition” for no legitimate purpose.

The final section of the disorderly conduct statute deals with actions rather than speech, and tends to be a stronger charge. An officer may charge disorderly conduct if he has probable cause to believe that your actions created a danger to the public, or to specific members of the public, for no good reason. Examples of this have been standing in the middle of a street for no reason, going into a dangerous, non-public area in a public building to snoop around, or creating a mess that has to be attended to by public personnel.

Showing a “legitimate purpose” is one way to beat these charges, and of course, the Commonwealth always bears the burden of proving you are the individual who actually committed the acts charged.

Is your Disorderly Conduct a Summary Offense or Misdemeanor?

Disorderly conduct charges are summary offenses in Pennsylvania in most cases. However, if the government believes it can show you intended “substantial harm or serious inconvenience” by your actions, or if it can show you were warned about your actions on multiple times, then this will be charged as a misdemeanor of the third degree.

Conclusion: We represent clients in Reading, Allentown, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and beyond

If you’ve been charged with disorderly conduct, remember that you are innocent until proven guilty. Don’t talk to the police or share your side of the story with friends or family. Anything you say can be used against you. Speak with a criminal defense attorney today and get a professional opinion about your charges. Wherever in Pennsylvania you have been charged, our attorneys can help. Call us today for a free consultation.