Disorderly conduct in Baltimore made headlines during the 2015 riots when looters clashed with the police. However, the offense is usually a low key one. Although disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor a conviction can land you in prison.

Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace are similar crimes in Maryland. State law classifies them under the same statute and offenses carry comparable maximum penalties. Our Baltimore disorderly conduct attorneys discuss laws and penalties for this crime.

What is Disorderly Conduct in Maryland?

Disorderly conduct is defined under Title 10 of the Maryland code as a crime against public health, conduct, and sensibilities. That’s a somewhat vague and confusing description but it means conduct that can offend people to be contrary to health such as making a loud noise.

Many actions can be construed by the police as representing disorderly conduct. They include:

  • Being loud and disturbing the peace, especially late at night;
  • Obstructing people in a public place such as a shopping center, hotel, amusement park, movie theater, and school, or on public transit. Standing in the way of people may not be an obstruction in its own right, but you can be charged with the offense if you act belligerently and refuse to move.
  • Refusing to obey an order of a police officer;
  • Throwing objects or lighting flares at a sporting event;
  • Making unreasonably loud noises that disturb people when they are in public places;
  • Disturbing people in their homes;
  • Offensive actions that other people find disturbing like obscene gestures.

Outlining the Penalties for Disorderly Conduct in Baltimore

Disorderly conduct is charged as a misdemeanor. It is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine up to $500. The judge has discretion in these cases.

The courts can impose elevated penalties for impeding access to a medical facility. The defendant faces 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

When disorderly conduct interferes with a sporting event, the accused faces up to three months in jail and a fine of up to $250.

An offense of public intoxication carries up to 90 days in jail and a potential fine of $100.

Maryland also has an offense of keeping a disorderly house on its statute books. Keeping a disorderly house is a misdemeanor carrying a potential prison term of 10 days to 6 months or a fine of $50 to $300 or both.

Although the penalties for disorderly conduct in Maryland are clear, the definition of the offense is often questioned. Disorderly conduct has been tried in some important court decisions.

Is Swearing at a Police Officer Disorderly Conduct in Baltimore?

Although it’s never wise to swear at a police officer, the 1982 case of Diehl v. State established swearing at a police officer is not necessarily enough to be charged with disorderly conduct. Police arrested Robert Diehl for disorderly conduct at a traffic stop. He allegedly swore at an officer. Police cited the Maryland code that states a disorderly conduct charge can be brought against:

“Any person … who shall willfully disturb any neighborhood in … [any] city, town or county [of this State] by loud and unseemly noises, or shall profanely curse and swear or use obscene language upon or near to any such street or highway within the hearing of persons passing by or along such highway.”

Diehl argued his words were not fighting nor loud and unseemly. He said there was no evidence that his words disturbed anybody else.  The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed Diehl’s words did not constitute “loud or unseemly noise.”

Is Holding an Event Without a Permit Grounds for Disorderly Conduct Charges?

In the 1950s, the city of Havre de Grace, Maryland denied a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses a permit to use a city park for Bible study. The religious group went ahead and held the Bible study class. The city convicted group members on charges of disorderly conduct and fined them.

The case of Niemotko v. Maryland went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1951 after the courts in Maryland declined to review the case.  The Supreme Court justices unanimously overturned the convictions. Not only did no disorderly conduct occur but the convictions were judged a denial of the First Amendment right to free speech and the guarantee of equal protection in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Disorderly conduct charges cannot be brought in the absence of disorderly behavior.

Can Loud Public Speaking Be Disorderly Conduct?

In 1990, the Maryland Court of Appeals considered the case of Eanes v. State. In 1988, Jerry Eanes was a member of a vocal anti-abortion demonstration outside the Hagerstown Reproductive Clinic. Local people complained about the loudness of the preaching and Eanes was charged with disorderly conduct. He appealed his conviction.

The Court of Appeals considered the free speech argument but upheld the trial judge’s ruling that Eanes’ speech was “loud and unseemly noise.” The majority ruling stated the decision was based on the volume rather than the content of the speech itself. The court stated:

“Eanes unreasonably disturbed members of a captive audience who were entitled to be free of that sort of disturbance. In other words, Judge Wright properly balanced Eanes’s first amendment rights against a substantial public interest protected by a narrowly drawn, content-neutral regulation. Eanes was warned to lower his voice by a police officer whose action was based on complaints from members of the captive audience. Eanes chose not to comply. Under these circumstances, he was properly convicted of a violation of the statute.”

The Eanes case established loud public speaking or demonstrations can constitute disorderly conduct in Maryland. The defendant in the case believed he was protected from criminal sanctions by the right to free speech. He was incorrect.

Baltimore Disorderly Conduct Lawyer Offering Free Consultations

If Baltimore police accused you or rowdiness in a city park, causing a disturbance at an Orioles game, or blocking a public access, you should set up an appointment with a Baltimore criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

Baltimore police officers have wide discretion to decide what is disorderly behavior. People who upset law enforcement officers sometimes find themselves charged with these offenses even if they were not rowdy or disorderly. Police officers habitually abuse this law. Often they don’t think a defendant will spend much time fighting the case. Disorderly conduct is viewed by many people as a minor crime. Defendants sometimes don’t realize the penalties for disorderly conduct in Baltimore can include time behind bars. Talk to our attorneys at the Law Office of Randolph Rice today at (410) 694-7291.