In order for the State to obtain a conviction under A.R.S. §12-2904(a)(1), it must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. The Defendant

a. intended to disturb the peace or quiet of a neighborhood, family or person, or

b. knew that she was disturbing the peace or quiet of same;

  1. Engaged in fighting, violent, or seriously disruptive behavior.

A.R.S. §12-2904(a).

The following three cases help shed light on what the Arizona courts deem to be "seriously disruptive behavior."

In 2000, in the Arizona Supreme Court case In Re Julio L., the Supreme Court analyzed and reviewed the disorderly conduct statute, in particular, the definition of “seriously disruptive behavior." In Re Julio L, 197 Ariz. 1, 3 P.2d 383 (2000). The defendant in In Re Julio L. was a juvenile charged with A.R.S. §12-2904(a)(1) for cursing at his school principal (saying F--- you") and kicking a chair, tipping it over, in a classroom filled with other students. The chair did not strike anyone. This altercation resulted from the principal asking the defendant to step out of the classroom to discuss the defendant’s failure to wear school uniform and failure to abide by his teacher’s instructions.

At trial, the defendant was adjudicated delinquent of disorderly conduct. The juvenile appealed the conviction. On appeal, the Supreme Court considered the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to supporting the verdict, and reversed the decision of the trial court. In its opinion, the court analyzed the distinction between a case for civil discipline and a case for criminal prosecution. The Court opined that not every violation of public decorum gives legal cause for criminal adjudication. The Court then went on to explain its interpretation of the meaning of “seriously disruptive" behavior regarding A.R.S. §12-2904(a)(1). The Court indicated that “seriously disrupted" should be analyzed in light of the two categories of behavior. To “disrupt" means to throw into disorder or turmoil…to interrupt to the extent of stopping. The Court noted that the disorderly conduct statute requires the disruption to be serious (i.e. something to cause “considerable distress, anxiety or inconvenience"). The Supreme Court went on to hold that it will construe “seriously disruptive behavior" to be of the same general nature as “fighting" or “violence" or “conduct liable to provoke such a response in others" and thus to threaten the continuation of some event, function, or activity. The Court held that the defendant’s cursing and kicking of the chair was insufficient to obtain a conviction under this definition of disorderly conduct, even when viewed in a light most favorable to upholding the conviction. More importantly, though, the Court noted that the difference between civil and criminal conduct must be kept in mind, stating, “Our laws do not make criminals out of adults or juveniles just because they act offensively or rudely of lack respect or control."

The Supreme Court then went on to explain that, since the administrator was not assaulted, did not feel threatened, was not provoked to physically retaliate, and did not feel the need to protect herself, the defendant’s conduct was insufficient to warrant a criminal conviction under the disorderly conduct statute. It also stated that “We will not attempt to do so by stretching the statute to punish school behavioral problems of a type that, though unfortunately too common, neither injure or threaten any person nor seriously disrupt any school class or function."

In 1999, the year before the In Re Julio L. case was decided, the Arizona Court of Appeals adjudicated another case involving the interpretation of the “serious disruptive behavior" language of Arizona’s disorderly conduct statute, in In Re Louise C., 197 Ariz. 84, 3 P.3d 1004 (1999). In that case, the trial court adjudicated the juvenile delinquent for engaging in an outburst towards the principal and assistant principal of her school. The “conduct" deemed seriously disrupted by the trial court was lashing out towards the principal, shouting “f--- you. I don’t have to do what you tell me,", then slamming the door as the defendant exited the room. During the trial, the principal testified that he and his assistant were highly offended by the defendant’s words, but neither wanted to physically retaliate in any way.

The defendant was subsequently convicted of A.R.S. §12-2904(a)(1). The Court of Appeals, in reviewing the conviction in a light most favorable to upholding the conviction, reversed the trial court’s adjudication. In defense of the defendant’s appeal, the State argued that the defendant’s conduct was considered “seriously disruptive behavior" within the meaning of A.R.S. §12-2904(a)(1). The Court of Appeals disagreed.

In support of its position, the court cited In re D.A.D., 224 Ga. App. 527, 481 S.E.2d 262 (Ga. Ct. App. 1997), where the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a juvenile was properly convicted of disorderly conduct for shouting obscenities and slapping a teacher during class and in front of several students. It then distinguished the fact that in the Georgia case, the obscenities were combined with an assault on the teacher, which was not an allegation in its case. Though the court did not condone the defendant’s behavior, it nonetheless reversed the trial court’s conviction because it found that the defendant’s actions of shouting obscenities and slamming a door shut did not amount to either fighting words or seriously disruptive behavior. The Court stated, “Our laws do not make criminals out of adults or juveniles just because they act offensively or rudely of lack respect or control."

The Supreme Court then went on to explain that, since the administrator was not assaulted, did not feel threatened, was not provoked to physically retaliate in any way, and did not feel the need to protect herself, the defendant’s conduct was insufficient to warrant a criminal conviction under Arizona’s disorderly conduct statute. In its summation, the court noted that it was quite aware of the schools’ need for the support of Arizona’s legal system, but that, under the current statutes, the courts cannot equate a child’s acting out through cursing and kicking chairs as conduct prescribed by the current criminal statute. It also stated that “We will not attempt to do so by stretching the statute to punish school behavioral problems of a type that, though unfortunately too common, neither injure or threaten any person nor seriously disrupt any school class or function."

In the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, in Henderson v. Mohave County, 54 F.3d 592, 95 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4193 (1995), held that evidence of yelling was insufficient to establish disturbance of the peace. The pertinent facts of this case are as follows:

Kathy Lynn Henderson was married to John Epstein; they were the parents of Korinne Nichole Henderson Epstein, born September 10, 1976. The couple was divorced in 1978 and custody of Korinne was awarded to Kathy. On September 17, 1985, physical custody of Korinne was transferred from Kathy to John in accordance with a stipulation between them; the stipulation was approved by an order of the Superior Court of Orange County, California (the 1985 decree). In 1986, Kathy petitioned to resume custody and was granted it by a commissioner acting under authority of the Superior Court of Orange County, California (the 1986 decree). According to the 1986 decree, John was granted "reasonable visitation" under the supervision of Kathy or another competent adult. He was also ordered to stay at least 100 yards from Korinne's school. Thereafter, Korinne lived with her mother in Kingman, Mohave County, Arizona and attended junior high in Kingman. On April 12, 1991, two deputy sheriffs appeared at Kathy's home and advised her that they wanted to remove Korinne from her custody. They referred to the 1985 decree, which, 90 minutes before their arrival, had been domesticated in Arizona by being filed in Mohave County by John. Kathy told the officers that the 1985 decree had been superseded by the 1986 decree and showed one of the officers the 1986 decree. The officer ignored what Kathy showed him and he told her that he would see that Mr. Epstein got custody. Kathy and the officers, each in their own cars, proceeded to Korinne's school and went to the dean's office, where the officers again produced the 1985 decree. Kathy "yelled" at the officers and then went outside the school to confront her ex-husband who was waiting for Korinne to be delivered to him. An officer warned Kathy that any further yelling would result in her arrest for disturbing the function of the school. She reentered the school and began "yelling" at the dean. She was then arrested for disorderly conduct in violation of A.R.S. § 13-2904. The officers took custody of Korinne. She was not permitted to speak to her mother. She told the deputies that she did not want to leave Kingman and that she wanted to remain with her mother. They refused to listen to her and delivered her to her father who returned her to California, where she remained for over two months.

During the trial, the court found that yelling, as it is defined today, indicates any elevation in the tone of voice directed by the speaker to accomplish a result that the hearer does not want to have accomplished. It then upheld the trial court’s decision that of acquittal, finding that yelling at someone, as Kathy did towards the dean and officers, did not amount to a disturbance of the peace in violation of A.R.S. §12-2904. Id.