Is it illegal to be annoying?

Judge Stephen Halsey

Judge Stephen Halsey

I recently read an article about ordinances in some states that make annoying conduct illegal. Such ordinances have frequently been found unconstitutionally vague and, therefore, unenforceable. A least one Minnesota city had its “no loud music” ordinance found unenforceable because of vagueness.  Why should it be illegal and chargeable for teens to play loud rock music while driving through downtown at midnight, but probably not illegal or chargeable for a senior citizen to play WCCO news at high volume when driving downtown at midday?

For ordinances or laws to provide due process and be enforceable they must be (a) sufficiently specific so that citizens will clearly have adequate notice of what is unlawful behavior, and (b) not violate other private rights. Minnesota’s disorderly conduct statute, in part, prohibits annoying conduct as follows:

Offensive, obscene, abusive, boisterous, or noisy conduct, or offensive, obscene, or abusive language tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others in a public or private place, including on a school bus, and knowing, or having reasonable grounds to know that it will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace.  Minn. Stat. §609.72.

The following are examples of Minnesota cases where conduct was found to violate the disorderly conduct statute:

• A jury had sufficient evidence to conclude the defendant was guilty of disorderly conduct against arresting police officers when the defendant threatened the officers’ lives, wrestled with the officers, bit one officer and spit at another. There was also testimony that the defendant fought with the officers when they tried to take him to the squad car.  The defendant’s actions and words went beyond merely arguing with police officers and constituted disorderly conduct.

• Holding of a large party in a small apartment and the directing of obscene language toward police while in police station was sufficient to sustain convictions for disorderly conduct.

The Wall Street Journal reported on March 28 the following:

Willian Barboza was arrested for being annoying.

The 23-year-old Connecticut native was sore about a speeding ticket he got in the Village of Liberty in upstate New York in 2012.  And when he sent in payment for the fine, he let the town of 4,400 know exactly how he felt.

“[Expletive] YOUR [expletive] TOWN [expletive],”Mr. Barboza wrote on the payment form, scratching out “Liberty” and replacing it with “TYRANNY.”

The town wasn’t amused. It rejected the payment and prosecuted him under New York’s aggravated harassment law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1971 case of Coates v. Cincinnati that the word “annoying” was too vague to support a criminal charge.  The decision struck down an ordinance that made it illegal to assemble on the sidewalk “in a manner annoying to passersby.”

“Conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others,” wrote Justice Potter Stewart.

NBC News reported the following on March 4:

In recent years, other towns have implemented versions of their own “annoying” laws – or have had them struck down.

Brighton, west of Detroit, passed an ordinance in 2008 making it illegal to repeatedly tick off another person in ways that “serve no legitimate purpose.”

Meanwhile, the Indiana Court of Appeals recently voided part of a state law that said it’s criminal to harass or annoy another person when intoxicated.  The statute provided “no guidance” for what makes someone’s conduct annoying, the court found.

In summary, citizens are entitled to constitutionally-protected due process and freedom from prosecution for violating laws or ordinances that are overbroad or vague.

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