The First Amendment guarantees your right to peaceably assemble and express yourself by engaging in lawful protests. Neither the federal government nor the state may unduly restrict this aspect of free speech. As such, Wisconsin courts closely scrutinize criminal laws limiting your rights to protest. Even otherwise lawful criminal statutes might be unlawfully applied to your case.
If you’re facing disorderly conduct or unlawful protest charges in Outagamie County, you should speak with the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff. Our dedicated defense team will analyze your case’s specific facts and raise any applicable constitutional defenses to politically motivated disorderly conduct charges in Wisconsin. Schedule your free, confidential defense consultation today by calling (920) 450-9800 or connecting with us online.
Unlawfully Charging Protestors with Disorderly Conduct in Eastern Wisconsin
Law enforcement officers frequently invoke Wisconsin’s broad disorderly conduct statute – Wisc. Stat. § 947.01 – when attempting to force protestors to disassemble. Section 947.01 generally prohibits anyone, whether in a public or private place, from engaging in the following provoking behavior if it does or will cause a disturbance:
- Unreasonable loudness
- Other disorderly acts
The application of this statute might conflict with citizens’ First Amendment protest rights, as political assemblies often involve loud statements, profanity, or conduct opposing parties might consider “indecent.” If one person complains about “unreasonable loudness,” does this override your constitutional rights? Prosecutors must generally show that the conduct complained of either did or was about to reasonably disturb the community’s order, safety, and peace. One person’s hypersensitivity to a photograph or political issue cannot generally support disorderly conduct charges. Instead, reasonable people would have to agree that the conduct was unlawfully distributing.
Many defendants have challenged disorderly conduct charges when they’re used to prohibit free speech in Wisconsin. The specific facts of each case generally determine whether the court can uphold a politically motivated conviction. For example, refusing to disassemble at the request of law enforcement officers qualifies as disorderly conduct if the police legally ordered you to disburse. Still, they cannot do so under this statute if a peaceful protest does not disturb the public. A disorderly conduct defense lawyer in Appleton might analyze your case’s facts based on federal and state case law to determine whether a disorderly conduct arrest, charge, or conviction was lawful.
Invoking the First Amendment to Defend Against Appleton Disorderly Conduct Charges
When you’re accused of disorderly conduct after a political protest, an experienced attorney may raise constitutional defenses to these charges. One such argument asserts that your conduct qualifies as protected speech under both the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions. Protected speech generally includes expressive behaviors such as marching, holding signs, and otherwise engaging in demonstrations addressing political and ideological issues. Law enforcement cannot typically prevent citizens from expressing themselves during protests unless their actions unlawfully infringe on other citizen’s rights.
Protected speech does not excuse criminal conduct such as theft, indecent exposure, rioting, violence, or trespass. Nevertheless, a criminal defense attorney could claim that a disorderly conduct citation unreasonably prohibited speech if the alleged offender did not engage in behaviors likely to disturb the public. When a person participates in a lawful political protest, law enforcement should only invoke the disorderly conduct statute if the rally does or might affect the community’s peace, order, and safety. Determining the charge’s appropriateness often requires a case-by-case analysis of the facts leading to the arrest or citation. Take the following disorderly conduct cases as examples.
In State v. Givens, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld a conviction under the disorderly conduct statute when protestors forced themselves into a small municipal office and prevented public workers from doing their jobs. In State v. Werstein, however, the same court overturned the defendants’ disorderly conduct convictions when they engaged in a peaceful protest at a public office that did not threaten or stop workers from doing their jobs. These examples demonstrate how the specific facts in each protest case are crucial to defeating disorderly conduct charges.
Defending Against Protest-Related Arrests and Prosecutions
Even if prosecutors refuse to dismiss disorderly conduct charges on free speech grounds, an experienced defense attorney may be able to raise other defenses, including:
- Self-Defense – Peaceful protests might turn violent due to opposition, and you may typically defend yourself from private individuals threatening immediate harm while unlawfully opposing your protest
- No Disturbance – The conduct itself must actually or probably cause an unlawful disturbance. Prosecutors must generally prove that law enforcement received reasonable complaints or acted to protect the protestors from engaging in clearly illegal behavior, i.e., looting or trespassing
- Invoking the Firearms Exception – Section 947.01(2) specifically states that law enforcement may not charge citizens with disorderly conduct for carrying a knife or lawfully possessed firearm unless the protestor indicates unlawful intent to use the weapons
- No Qualifying Conduct – To sustain charges under § 947.01(1), the individual must engage in qualifying disorderly conduct like violence, profanity, obscene behavior, or unreasonable loudness. Law enforcement officers commonly cite peaceful protestors for the conduct of disorderly protestors, which cannot support a disorderly conduct conviction in Wisconsin.
Remember, prosecutors, bear the burden of proving the alleged offender engaged in prohibited conduct and that the disorderly behavior reasonably distributed local citizens’ peace. The state must also overcome the presumption that most political protests involve constitutionally protected free speech. A qualified defense attorney may raise all applicable constitutional and legal defenses to disorderly conduct charges in Appleton.
Call Us Today to Speak with a Wisconsin Criminal Defense Lawyer
Defending against disorderly conduct charges stemming from political protests often requires an experienced Wisconsin criminal attorney. Your case’s specific facts may support a constitutional defense to unreasonable prosecution, primarily if you were targeted based on your race, gender, or sexual orientation. Schedule a free, confidential legal consultation with the qualified misdemeanor defense team at Hogan Eickhoff immediately after being arrested or cited for disorderly conduct. Call our Appleton office today at (920) 450-9800 or contact us online.