Virginia Disorderly Conduct Laws and Defenses

DISORDERLY CONDUCT

Virginia law 18.2-415 punishes disorderly conduct as an act that 1) takes place in a public place, 2) has direct tendency to cause violence at the person at whom such conduct is directed, and 3) the accused intended to cause a public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly created a risk for one of those. Additionally, if the conduct could lead to a finding of guilt under another Virginia code section, then that code section is what must be prosecuted, not 18.2-415. Both cannot be prosecuted simultaneously under these circumstances.

While under Virginia law, a disorderly conduct charge is punished as a Class 1 Misdemeanor offense (up to 1 year in jail with up to a $2,500 fine), city and county laws have their own variations of the Virginia law and will punish similar conduct in an equal or lesser way. See Municipal Ordinances below for Alexandria, Fairfax, and Arlington.

Most commonly debated issues are: whether the conduct took place in an area that is designated as a public place, and very simply whether the conduct could constitute a crime under this code section.

The question as to whether a particular act is disorderly conduct depends largely on the facts in the particular case. The courts will consider the nature of the particular act, the time and place of its occurrence, as well as all the surrounding circumstances. For example, in a famous Court of Appeals case for a man named Ford, a police officer asked a man pushing a bicycle to “come over” to him. Although Ford complied, he became loud and angry, used offensive language, and waved his arms in the air. The court held that “[a]lthough the defendant was loud, profane and uncivil, the officers had no basis to conclude, on these facts, that they would be required to use physical force to restrain the defendant in order to carry out their duties.”

On the other hand, and in a relatively similar case of Ms. Keyes, things turned out in the opposite direction. An officer stopped Keyes for a traffic infraction. During her encounter with the officer, Keyes “put her hands down . . . balled her fists . . . straightened up” and “just started screaming” at the officer. The officer told Keyes that he would arrest her for disorderly conduct if she did not calm down. In response, Keyes said, “You ain’t going to do nothing to me,” and demanded the presence of a “real policeman,” “screaming the entire time.” The officer arrested Keyes because he believed she “was going to fight.” The same Court as above ruled that “[s]uch willful, intemperate and provocative conduct, in response to proper law enforcement activity, audible for several blocks and visible from a public street, clearly evinced the intent or recklessness contemplated” by the disorderly conduct ordinance. Because the officer “reasonably ‘felt as though [he] was going to have to fight’ to subdue defendant, her behavior had `a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person . . . at whom [it was] directed.’” The critical difference here is that the officer articulated that he would have to fight Ms. Kayes. This articulation is key for a trial. (The court would still need to conclude that a reasonable officer under the same circumstances would have reason to use physical force. In Ford, a reasonable officer would not have been justified in doing so.)

You can also compare this to the case of Ms. Tokara-Mansary. This case involved a police officer attempting to investigate an accident in the midst of snarled traffic at a busy intersection. Over a sustained period of time, Tokara-Mansary screamed profanities at the officer, refused to obey any of his commands or answer any of his questions, and loudly cursed at her husband. The tumult reached such a level that passing vehicles stopped in a nearby parking lot to find out the cause of alarm. Officer Walker testified that he thought he would have to use physical force to subdue Tokara-Mansary both for his own safety and the safety of those vulnerably stopped at the intersection while she carried on her tirade. Under the circumstances, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court had a sufficient evidentiary basis to find Tokora-Mansary guilty of disorderly conduct.

When speech is the fact in issue, 1st Amendment free speech issues come into play. As such, time and manner of the speaking will matter for a court’s determination as to whether the conduct was properly charged. The words in themselves CANNOT be used to determine guilt under this statute, as that would be a Freedom of Speech violation. As such, the “time, manner, and place” in which a person speaks is what is used to determine culpability – the behavior accompanying the speaking, without regard for the content of the speech.

TEXT OF THE VIRGINIA CODE

§ 18.2-415. Disorderly conduct in public places.
A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he:
A. In any street, highway, public building, or while in or on a public conveyance, or public place engages in conduct having a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, such conduct is directed; or
B. Willfully or being intoxicated, whether willfully or not, and whether such intoxication results from self-administered alcohol or other drug of whatever nature, disrupts any funeral, memorial service, or meeting of the governing body of any political subdivision of this Commonwealth or a division or agency thereof, or of any school, literary society or place of religious worship, if the disruption (i) prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of the funeral, memorial service, or meeting or (ii) has a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, the disruption is directed; or
C. Willfully or while intoxicated, whether willfully or not, and whether such intoxication results from self-administered alcohol or other drug of whatever nature, disrupts the operation of any school or any activity conducted or sponsored by any school, if the disruption (i) prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of the operation or activity or (ii) has a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, the disruption is directed.
However, the conduct prohibited under subdivision A, B or C of this section shall not be deemed to include the utterance or display of any words or to include conduct otherwise made punishable under this title.
The person in charge of any such building, place, conveyance, meeting, operation or activity may eject therefrom any person who violates any provision of this section, with the aid, if necessary, of any persons who may be called upon for such purpose.
The governing bodies of counties, cities and towns are authorized to adopt ordinances prohibiting and punishing the acts and conduct prohibited by this section, provided that the punishment fixed therefor shall not exceed that prescribed for a Class 1 misdemeanor. A person violating any provision of this section shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

TEXT IN FAIRFAX CODE
Section 5-1-4. – Disorderly conduct in public places; ejection of violators.
(a) A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he:
(1) In any street, highway, public building, or while in or on a public conveyance, or public place engages in conduct having a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, such conduct is directed; provided, however, such conduct shall not be deemed to include the utterance or display of any words or to include conduct otherwise made punishable under this Article; or
(2) Willfully, or being intoxicated, whether willfully or not, disrupts any meeting of the governing body of any political subdivision of this State or a division or agency thereof, or of any school, literary society or place of religious worship, if such disruption prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of such meeting or has a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, such disruption is directed; provided, however, such conduct shall not be deemed to include the utterance or display of any words or to include conduct otherwise made punishable under this Article.
(3) A person violating any provision of this Section shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
(b) The person in charge of any such building, place, conveyance or meeting may eject therefrom any person who violates any provision of this Section, with the aid, if necessary, of any persons who may be called upon for such purpose.

TEXT IN THE CODE OF THE CITY OF ALEXANDRIA
Sec. 13-1-30 – Disorderly conduct.
(a) A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he:
(1) in any street, highway, public building, or while in or on a public conveyance, or public place, engages in conduct having a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, such conduct is directed; provided, however, such conduct shall not be deemed to include the utterance or display of any words,
(2) willfully, or being intoxicated, whether willfully or not, disrupts any meeting of the city council or any department, agency, board or commission of this city, or of any school, literary society or place of religious worship, if this, disruption prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting or has a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person or persons at whom, individually, this disruption is directed; provided, however, such conduct shall not be deemed to include the utterance or display of any words or to include conduct otherwise made punishable under this chapter.
(3) urinates or defecates in any public place or in any place open to the public or exposed to public view or upon the surface of the ground or upon any premises, lot or in any building, basement or in any public street, or into any standing water, stream or excavation or public place other than a proper toilet or portable toilet:
(4) causes, provokes, engages in or congregates with another or others for the purpose of engaging in any fight, brawl or riot so as to endanger the life, limb, health or property of another or public property wherever located;
(5) utters any lewd or obscene words or epithets in an unreasonably loud manner, or disturbs the public peace or quiet by loud and boisterous conduct. For purposes of this subsection, the term “loud and boisterous conduct” means an activity and noise of sufficient volume, intensity and duration so as to annoy or disturb unreasonably the comfort, health, welfare and environment, place or safety of persons in any office, dwelling, hotel or other type of residence, or of any person in the city.
(b) The person in charge of any such building, place, conveyance or meeting may eject therefrom any person who violates any provisions of this section, with the aid, if necessary, of any persons who may be called upon for such purpose.
(c) Anyone convicted of a violation of this section shall be guilty of a class 3 misdemeanor.

TEXT IN THE ARLINGTON COUNTY CODE
§ 17-3. Disorderly Conduct.
A. A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with the predominant intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm to one (1) or more other persons, or recklessly to create a risk thereof, he engages in conduct, including the utterance or display of any threatening, abusive or insulting language, which, with respect to the person or persons at whom, individually, such conduct or language is directed, has a direct tendency to cause:
1. Acts of violence by such person or persons; or
2. Fear by such person or persons of an unpermitted touching of them or personal injury to them; or
3. Personal injury to such person or persons, or an unpermitted touching of them; or
4. Destruction or defacing of, or injury to the property of such person or persons or the property of others in their control or custody;
while either he or any of such persons are located upon any public property, or upon private property while open to the public, or upon any public conveyance.
B. A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, willfully, or being intoxicated, whether willfully or not, he disrupts any meeting of the Arlington County Board of the Arlington School Board, or of any committee, board or commission appointed in whole or in part by either of them, or of employees of Arlington County or the Arlington School Board, convened to conduct public business, or any meeting of a school, literary society or religious group, if such disruption prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of such meeting.
C. A person in charge of any such public property, private property while open to the public, public conveyance or meeting may eject therefrom any person whom he has probable cause to believe has committed any such disorderly conduct, with the aid, if necessary, of any persons who may be called upon for such purpose.
D. Any person committing any such disorderly conduct shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor; provided, however, that if such disorderly conduct consists only of the utterance or display of abusive or insulting language in violation of § 17-3.A, such person shall be punished only by a fine not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500.00).

*This article is for your personal information only and is not intended as legal advice. Nothing herein shall create an attorney – client relationship. This area of the law is very complex. Every case is different and the information contained herein is general. This information is not intended to be legal advice. Nor is this material intended to replace consultation with a lawyer. Always consult a licensed lawyer for your particular case. Call 703.870.6868 for a consultation.