Breach of the Peace

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Breach of the peace, at common law, is a broad concept that encompasses a variety of conduct that disturbs public order or tranquility. Historically, it referred to acts that caused fear or alarm among the public, or threatened to do so. This could include actions such as physical altercations, loud and disruptive behavior, or even making threats that cause public disturbance.

Modern Statutory Interpretations

In modern legal systems, breach of the peace is often codified in statutes and can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another in the United States. Generally, it still retains its core concept of prohibiting conduct that disturbs public tranquility or safety. However, the specifics can differ; some states might define it as engaging in violent or tumultuous behavior, while others may include actions like causing a public nuisance or disrupting a lawful assembly.

Elements of the Offense

The elements of breach of the peace typically include engaging in conduct that is likely to cause or does cause public alarm, annoyance, or inconvenience. It’s important to note that the conduct doesn’t necessarily have to be violent. In some jurisdictions, excessively loud noise or lewd acts in public could also constitute a breach of the peace.

Example Statutory Provisions

For instance, in Connecticut, breach of the peace is codified under Sec. 53a-181 of the Connecticut General Statutes. It includes engaging in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior, or creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition. Similarly, other states have their own statutes with specific provisions that detail what constitutes a breach of the peace.

Classification and Penalties

The classification and penalties for breach of the peace offenses can vary. Typically, these offenses are considered misdemeanors, but the severity of the misdemeanor can differ based on the circumstances and the specific actions involved. Penalties can range from fines to imprisonment, or both, depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the offense.

Disorderly Conduct and Breach of the Peace

The Model Penal Code (MPC), a blueprint for modernizing and standardizing criminal laws across the United States, does not explicitly enumerate “breach of the peace” as a distinct offense. However, it addresses similar conduct through the offense of “disorderly conduct,” which can be seen as a modern and more specific iteration of the broader common law concept of breach of the peace.

Disorderly Conduct under the Model Penal Code

Under the MPC, disorderly conduct is defined as engaging in behavior that causes public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof. Specifically, Section 250.2 of the MPC outlines the following actions as constituting disorderly conduct:

  1. Engaging in Fighting or Threatening Behavior: This includes participating in a fight or threatening, violent, or tumultuous behavior.
  2. Making Unreasonable Noise: Creating a loud or disruptive noise that disturbs others.
  3. Using Abusive or Obscene Language: Publicly using offensive or obscene language or gestures in a manner likely to provoke a violent reaction.
  4. Creating a Hazardous or Physically Offensive Condition: Engaging in actions that create a hazardous or physically offensive condition without serving a legitimate purpose.

These actions under the MPC encapsulate what was traditionally referred to as a breach of the peace. The common law concept of breach of the peace generally involved conduct that disturbed public order or tranquility. It was a broad and somewhat nebulous term, often applied to a range of disruptive behaviors.

The shift towards the specific categorization of disorderly conduct in modern legal frameworks like the MPC reflects a trend towards greater specificity and clarity in criminal statutes. By delineating specific behaviors and circumstances that constitute disorderly conduct, the MPC provides clearer guidelines for law enforcement and the courts. This specificity aids in consistent enforcement and adjudication while protecting individuals from arbitrary or vague charges.

In summary, while the term “breach of the peace” is not used in the MPC, its essence is captured and refined under the offense of disorderly conduct. This offense explicitly defines the actions and circumstances that constitute disruptive behavior, thus modernizing and clarifying the approach to public order offenses.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  10/31/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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