Maryland Disorderly Conduct v. First Amendment Right to Freedom of Speech

In most jurisdictions, including Maryland, there are certain illegal acts that qualify as “quality of life” crimes. You may hear of crimes called “disorderly conduct” or “disturbance of the peace.” Typically these crimes consist of creating a disturbance, causing a scene, or behaving in a certain manner that disrupts the public. However, these crimes come into conflict with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution granting all of us with the right to free speech, and frequently can be successfully defended on free speech grounds.

What Exactly is Disorderly Conduct in Maryland?

As proscribed by the Maryland Criminal Law statute, Disorderly Conduct is defined as a willful act “in a disorderly manner that disturbs the public peace.” Under the same Criminal Law section, a person is not allowed to “make an unreasonably loud noise, willfully disturbing the peace of another” in that person’s land or in a public space.

These statutes are rather vague and probably intentionally so. What exactly does acting in a “disorderly manner” mean? How loud is “unreasonably loud”? Because the statutes are vague and open for interpretation, the police are effectively granted broad power to arrest someone they think they have probable cause for committing disorderly conduct or making an unreasonably loud noise. However, the Constitution allows for a lot of leeway on free speech. Just because a police officer has arrested someone for disorderly conduct does not mean that person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

First Amendment Freedom of Speech

The U.S. Constitution states that Congress and the States cannot make any laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” This freedom of speech extends to speech extended towards government and law enforcement. For instance, if someone is unhappy with the way the police are behaving, it is within their rights to verbally express their displeasure towards the police. However, certain speech is prohibited that would incite a riot or cause an immediate danger to the public–the common example of the person who yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater is a type of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.

How the First Amendment Defines Disorderly Conduct in Maryland

Courts in Maryland have interpreted the disorderly conduct laws in a consistent manner with the First Amendment. The Maryland Courts recognize that speech is protected by the First Amendment and thus for someone’s actions to rise to criminal disorderly conduct it must offend, disturb, incite, or tend to incite a number of people gathered in the area. In order for there to be a breach of the peace, there must be disorderly, dangerous conduct, an affray, actual violence, or conduct tending to or provocative of violence by others. For the crime of a public disturbance by a loud noise, the noise must be made in a loud manner where there is a clear and present danger of violence or when the communication is merely a guise to disturb persons.

Defenses for Disorderly Conduct
The First Amendment gives people a lot of leeway in what they can say and how they can act in public. For these actions to constitute disorderly conduct, its not enough that people paid attention to the noise, watched what was going on, or complained about the conduct. The speech made must actually call for violence, disruption, or another illegal act. Often a disorderly conduct case can be defended on these grounds.

Another potential defense is that the public was not disturbed. When something unusual happens, people have a tendency to stop, look, listen, and gather around in a crowd to see what is going on. However, these folks are often not disturbed by the words or actions of an individual, rather they are simply curiosity seekers. Frequently the police will show up and that alone will draw a crowd to watch and wonder as to what is happening.

If the evidence in a disorderly conduct charge does not show that the public was actually disturbed or the speech or actions are protected under the First Amendment, then the charges should be dismissed or the case should be vigorous challenged at trial. Disorderly conduct is one of the most commonly charged crimes in Maryland, but just because someone is charged with it does not mean that person should plead guilty.

To speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney about your disorderly conduct case or any other charges, contact the Law Offices of Christopher L. Peretti any time at 301-875-3472. As always, consultations are complimentary.

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