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What is a Public Disturbance?

A. Pasbjerg
Updated May 16, 2024
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A public disturbance is a legal offense that involves a person or people engaging in behavior that causes an unreasonable nuisance to others. Disturbances are typically classified as misdemeanors, and the specific offenses that qualify are usually governed by local laws. Often associated with excessive noise, they can also include some types of inappropriate language, physical behaviors, or the generation of offensive odors.

The most common type is excessive noise, and there are numerous possible sources. Social gatherings that generate overly loud conversation or where music is played at a high volume are one common cause. Vehicles and other machines with extremely loud motors running in highly populated areas may cause a disturbance. Yelling, screaming, and other noisy types of verbal communication can be considered a nuisance. Some other potential sources include car horns, sirens, or loudspeaker systems.

Certain types of inappropriate language may also qualify as a public disturbance. Threatening another person in a manner that he or she may reasonably feel to be in danger may meet the criteria. Public fighting, which may also generate loud noise, can impact other people in the area. Cursing and other offensive language, especially if it may provoke violence in others, can fall under such laws as well.

Not all public disturbances are related to sound; other behaviors that negatively impact people can fall under the umbrella, too. One example is something that creates a widespread foul smell, like an excessive buildup of garbage on a person's property. Physically obstructing other people from going about their business may lead to charges as well.

When a person is charged with and convicted of creating a disturbance, the associated punishment will mainly depend on what class of misdemeanor it is considered in that locale. Certain misdemeanors only require that the person convicted pay a specified fine. In other cases, a certain amount of time in jail may be required, though in most misdemeanor cases it is two years or less. Sometimes, a fine and confinement in jail are both ordered.

Some activities may cause loud noise and other inconveniences to people but are typically exempt from prosecution under public disturbance laws. Public events that are held after receiving the appropriate authorizations are not included. Sirens and other noise from emergency vehicles are another example. The noise of aircraft in the vicinity of an airport, motor vehicles on public highways, or railroads are generally excluded as well.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
A. Pasbjerg
By A. Pasbjerg
Andrea Pasbjerg, a MyLawQuestions contributor, holds an MBA from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her business background helps her to create content that is both informative and practical, providing readers with valuable insights and strategies for success in the business world.

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Discussion Comments

By rachrake51 — On Jun 05, 2011

Apparently, apart from the normal definition of public disturbance, including noise disturbances and the like, "creating a noxious and offensive odor" is listed as an offense in the legal definition of "public disturbance."

Smelling nasty can now warrant a misdemeanor arrest and a fine. Now, I don't enjoy noticing onion smells coming out of someones pores, but I do not think they should be fined for it!

By hamje32 — On Jun 05, 2011

A neighbor’s barking dog once kept me up all night. I don’t know if the owners didn’t care that he kept barking or maybe they were training the dog to live outside. However, I was always told that if your dog kept barking for more than 15 minutes then according to our city ordinance the dog catchers could come and impound him.

I guess that only happens if someone complains; apparently that didn’t happen that night, and I didn’t want to get out of bed to force a confrontation. It stopped the next day, however, so someone apparently gave him the message.

By allenJo — On Jun 05, 2011

@manykitties2 - I agree with you that public disturbances can be in the eye of the beholder—or the hearer. I remember in college we used to have this campus preacher stand on the lawn in front of the library and start preaching away. He was bellowing really loud.

Finally one of the cops came by and told him to quiet it down. I guess technically there was no law against what he was doing-maybe he got a permit, I don’t know.

But someone obviously filed a complaint, whether because he was too loud or they just didn’t like what he was saying. So he spoke more softly, but the students kept doing what they had been doing before: they just passed him by.

By NathanG — On Jun 05, 2011

@everetra- It’s not just apartments that have that problem; it’s regular neighborhoods. We had some new neighbors move in right next door and they decided to celebrate their arrival by putting on a party that went late into the night.

By midnight it was still going on, and I was subjected to the sounds of laughter, loud music and splashes in the swimming pool. In another context, these would be the normal sounds of merriment, but when you’re trying to get some sleep it’s like a constant grating on your nerves.

Fortunately it lasted only that night, and I survived it by padding my ears with pillows and trying to make it through the evening. A few times I almost got the nerve to go over and ask them to quiet things down, but backed out at the last minute.

By everetra — On Jun 05, 2011

@letsheartit - We were accused of creating a minor disturbance back when we lived in an apartment complex. Specifically, we were told that our two kids-toddlers at the time-were too rowdy. I was insulted, especially since I knew that we were all fairly quiet as a family, and the few times my kids had acted up certainly didn’t compare to the loud blare of rock music from neighboring apartments.

Upon further investigation, the apartment managers agreed with us that it was in fact the neighbor’s music which caused the disturbance. How somebody could mistake our kids for the disturbance is beyond me; but it goes to highlight the problem of living in apartments in such close proximity with your neighbors.

By manykitties2 — On Jun 05, 2011

You would be surprised the kind of things that can be considered a public disturbance. If you are using a chainsaw to hack down a tree outside of designated hours, that can be a public disturbance.

There was a case of a person wearing a 'Free Hugs' sign in a public area, as a way to promote community friendships and love. He was arrested for creating a public disturbance when people complained that he was bothering others, though he was just standing there.

If you are doing anything out of the ordinary in public, it is a really good idea to check if you could get arrested for it.

By letshearit — On Jun 05, 2011

If you enjoy throwing social gatherings for your friends and family, it is always a good idea to check out the local noise bylaws and see how long you can have your music up. Many areas say that after 11PM you have to be quiet.

If it is before 11PM you are generally safe with raising the volume of you music, though out of courtesy you should remember your neighbors.

If the police are called to your home for a noise violation and causing a public disturbance the fines given can be quite high. Also, there is a chance of being arrested if you do not get things under control.

A. Pasbjerg

A. Pasbjerg

Andrea Pasbjerg, a MyLawQuestions contributor, holds an MBA from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her business background helps her to create content that is both informative and practical, providing readers with valuable insights and strategies for success in the business world.
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