Disorderly Conduct has a Higher Bar than Most Think

An interesting published decision came down today from the Pennsylvania Superior Court:  Commonwealth v. Pennix, 1709 WDA 2016 (Pa. Super. Ct., 12/12/2017).  The case is unusual because the appellate court completely reversed the conviction of a defendant.

The facts of the Case

The case concerned a teenage girl.  For whatever reason, this girl had to appear in the Allegheny County Family Court Building.  On her way into the court building the girl had to pass her backpack through a metal detector.

The metal detector went off and the sheriff told the girl to find the metal object.  As she did so, she became agitated and the Sheriffs began to pressure her.  Eventually the girl screamed “Fuck you I ain’t got time for this,” “Fuck you police” and “I don’t got time for you fucking police.”

The girl was subsequently instructed to leave the building, but she refused and continued to scream and be disruptive until she was escorted from the building by Sheriff’s deputies.  The Sheriffs then searched her bag and found a two-inch pocket knife and several loose razor blades.

On these facts, the girl was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon in a court facility and disorderly conduct.

The Decision of the Court

The Pennsylvania Superior Court, reviewing the conviction wisely reversed the decision of the trial court.  First, the court reasoned that the two inch knife and loose razor blades strewn helter-skleter in a backpack did not constitute a "dangerous weapon.  This is an important holding going forward, because had the court determined otherwise, virtually any sharp object on a person could be considered to be a weapon and subject that person to criminal sanction, or be used as a "sentence aggravator" which result in longer prison sentences.

Next, and even more importantly, the Superior Court correctly reasoned that the defendant's actions did not constitute disorderly conduct.  Disorderly conduct is probably the most over-abuse trick in the police handbook.  Often times a person will be charged with disorderly conduct because they were rude to a police officer (as happened here) or because they were acting generally impolite to another person.

Why This is Important

The crime of disorderly conduct requires that a person's actions bring about a situation where a fight with another person could happen at any moment.  Acting the fool or being a jerk may not win you many friends, but it shouldn't make you a criminal.  Police and Courts forget this all the time; instead they give people criminal records because they disapprove of the way they react to a situation or the language they use.  In all honesty, its just a type of social control over other people because the police and the courts have power and defendant's don't.  The criminal law, however, isn't meant to punish trifling social insults, its meant to prevent violence and real harms to others, thus why the touchstone of disorderly conduct is that a defenant's conduct is about to result in a physical fight.

Thankfully, the Superior Court got this decision right and the teenage girl will have learned a lesson in manners without having become a criminal.

Read the whole decision here.