Breach of the peace
The concept of breach of peace, which is a common law1 practice rooted in the English system of laws, exposes one to charge for the commission of absolutely anything. The mischief intended to be addressed by the originators of the term was that the peace of the Queen2 was to be protected and defended at any cost. From a legal perspective, it could be codified exactly what could cause the breach of the peace. The main qualm in the case was that the peace had been breached. Many common law countries have exported the law into their jurisdiction carefully omitting the Queen and inserting their respective countries. Even in the United States of America3 the concept of the breach of peace has been entertained by various state laws that have expressly stated that the breach of peace of the state shall accrue liability to the accused. In New Jersey, for instance, this law is manifested in the following provision, breach against the peace of this State, government and dignity of the same.
One ought to appreciate the difficulty in expressly stating what exactly would constitute actions that breach peace. While, on the surface, one may be tempted to think actions that breach peace are obvious and not subject to debate, the practical application of the law in the face of supervening circumstances would challenge the understanding of this concept. This is because what breaches peace is a question of fact that in essence depends on the circumstances within that time and space. What could breach peace today may not necessarily breach the peace tomorrow. However, the body of case law in the United States of America could be used to illustrate the court’s interpretation of the breach of peace concept and perhaps prove the assertion that anything and nothing could actually amount to a breach of the peace.
In Adderly v. Florida 385 U.S. 39 (1966), thirty two students who were part of a larger group of two hundred blocked a jail driveway to a jail that was not public. The group sang, clapped, danced and demonstrated in protest against the arrest of their schoolmates and the accompanying segregation that the arrested faced in the jails. They blatantly refused to leave the jail premises and action the sheriff perceived as trespass with malicious intent. They were consequently arrested and charged with trespass with malicious intent and, in addition, breach of the peace as a result of the trespass. The students defendants argued in their appeal in the Supreme Court that the holding by the lower courts in essence denied them their rights of free speech, assembly, petition, due process of the law and equal protection of the laws. They thus argued that the ruling in its entirety infringed on their constitutional rights protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ ruling. In addition, the Supreme Court substantively argued that the Florida trespass statute applied as the premises in question was designed for the confinement of prisoners and not open to the public contrary to the actions of the appellants. That Act they noted was not as constitutionally vague as was a breach of peace statutes invalidated in Edwards v. South Carolina and Cox v. Louisiana. The court observed among other things that the appellants’ actions as such caused a breach of the peace.
A similar ruling was held in Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972). In this case, the state of Georgia had provided in statute that any person who shall, without provocation, use to or of another, and in his presenceopprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peaceshall be guilty of a misdemeanour. In that case, the appellant in the Supreme Court sought to challenge the ruling by subordinate courts that his use of words had actually amounted to a breach of the peace contrary to the provisions of Georgia Statute. The appellant further argued that the ruling was inconsistent with the constitution and went against the spirit of the First and Fourteenth Amendments citing that the statute was both vague and overboard and that the statute in its wording went against the freedoms of speech, expression and association.
The Court upheld the lower court’s ruling outlining that a breach of the peace had essentially been committed. The court underlined the fact that the right to speech was not in question. What was contested was the result of the use of the right to speech. Ordinarily one is expected to use his right of speech without causing any incitement or breach of the peace. In the same vein, Feiner v. New York 304 U. S. 315 (1951) it was decided by the Supreme Court on the same footing. In the case, the petitioner’s inflammatory speech was cited as the cause of the breach of peace.
Feiner v. New York 340- U.S.315 (1915). (2006, October 30). Retrieved October 30, 2012, from U.S. Supreme Court Center: http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/340/315/case.html
Elliott, C., & Quinn, F. (2008). Criminal Law. New York: Pearson Longman.
Gardner, T. J., & Anderson, T. M. (2008). Criminal Law. New York: Cengage Learning.
Pollock, J. M. (2012). Criminal Law. New York: Newnes.
Samaha, J. (2010). Criminal Law. New York: Cengage Learning.
U.S. Supreme Court. (2008, October 30). GOODING v. WILSON, 405 U.S. 518 (1972). Retrieved October 30, 2012, from U.S. Supreme Court: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=405&invol=518
U.S. Supreme Court Center. (2010, October 2). Adderly v. Florida - 385 U.S. 39 (1966). Retrieved October 30, 2012, from U.S. Supreme Court Center: http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/385/39/case.html