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Disorderly Conduct Laws in Massachusetts

Contact Attorney Jason Chan

Attorney Jason Chan

267 North Beacon Street, Suite 3
Boston MA 01235

Phone: 781-343-1DUI (781-343-1384)
Fax: 617-226-7986

Disorderly Conduct in Massachusetts

Disorderly conduct is a broadly used statute in many states with the purpose of allowing police to minimize public disturbances.  In many states charges of this type are combined with or replaced by disturbing the peace charges to maintain the public streets and public areas from unruly or disruptive behavior.  Under the statute in Massachusetts, first offenders generally receive only a fine of $150 or less.  A second offense or further offenses can be misdemeanors, and offenders can receive up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $200, or both. Mass. General Laws  Ch. 272 Sect. 53

  • What is Disorderly Conduct?

There are many acts that fall under disorderly conduct in Massachusetts.  The state must show that the defendant engaged in the behaviors that are considered disorderly.  Such behaviors include fighting, threatening behavior, or other violent behaviors.   In addition, creating offensive or hazardous conditions may qualify as disorderly conduct as well.   These acts are qualified by lack of legitimate purpose, the reasonable likelihood of some effect on the public and intentional or at least reckless behavior in creating the public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.    

  • Disorderly Conduct as a Felony

While in theory disorderly conduct may be prosecuted as a felony in Massachusetts, in reality if conduct rises to a more serious level is the disorderly conduct charge is joined by other charges which are felonies. For example, in Massachusetts misdemeanors can be elevated to felonies by the presence of a gun.  Usually, however, a gun charge would be entered against the defendant instead of felony disorderly conduct.

  • Common Behaviors that may lead to Disorderly Conduct Arrests

Some common examples of behaviors that may lead to a disorderly conduct arrest include being drunk in public, physical altercations, very loud and threatening arguments especially when they include use of abusive language, extreme amounts of noise for the location, and blocking traffic See Commonwealth v. Dotson, 462 Mass. 96, 2012 and Commonwealth v. Zettel, 46 Mass App. Ct. 471 (1999)

Federal Disorderly Conduct Statute

The federal disorderly conduct statute is substantially similar to the Massachusetts state standard.  Acts are less often prosecuted under this statute.  There are variations to this statute that apply to federal parks and other lands controlled by the national government rather than the state of Massachusetts.  See Disorderly Conduct in Federal Parks

Overuse of Disorderly Conduct Statutes

In the last several years, there has been increasing discussion of overuse of the disorderly conduct statute.  More and more critics are claiming the use of the statute is overly broad, inappropriate and often a violation of the civil rights of the people being prosecuted under the statute. 

Harry L. Gates and White House Intervention and Related Cases

The infamous case of Harry L. Gates, law professor from Harvard being arrested on his front porch gained national attention and intervention by the White House in 2009. He was held for several hours and the charges were dropped about five days following the incident.  Another significant case in Lowell, Massachusetts also involved a man being arrested on private property in 2011.  The person called the officer “a coward” but did little else.  Ultimately the officer was charged with false arrest in the case.  Officer in Disorderly Conduct Case Charged with False Arrest

Some legal sources say the law is being used both in Massachusetts to punish behavior that offends police officers but is not unlawful.  Regardless, it is clear that in some cases disorderly conduct is overused.  There are proponents who argue for more and better training of officers as to the law surrounding disorderly conduct to reduce its misuse.  These discussions are happening nationwide, with some judges being more open to throwing out charges against defendants as well as holding police responsible for unlawful arrest by allowing false arrest charges, as in the case described above.  

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