When people are arrested in mass settings like demonstrations or Super Bowl celebrations, there are several crimes and summary offenses that are frequently charged. Those crimes and summary offenses include:

  • Disorderly Conduct: Disorderly conduct is commonly charged where the police believe that a person’s behavior is such that it causes annoyance or the risk of harm to those in the area. This is Pennsylvania’s rough equivalent to “disturbing the peace.” This can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a summary offense.
  • Criminal Mischief: Criminal mischief covers an assortment of actions that generally involve damage to property. This includes graffiti, breaking a window, keying a car, etc. This can be graded as a felony, misdemeanor, or as a summary offense depending on the value of the property that is damaged.
  • Propulsion of Missiles: Propulsion of missiles includes throwing rocks, bricks, or any other item. This usually involves propelling an item into a car or occupied structure.
  • Arson: Arson is intentionally setting something on fire or creates an explosion and puts lives in danger or damages property. This is a felony.
  • Failure to Disperse: Where three or more people are engaging in disorderly conduct but don’t follow a police officer’s order to leave the area, they may be charged with failure of disorderly persons to disperse upon official order. This is a second-degree misdemeanor.
  • Resisting Arrest: Resisting arrest is, in lay terms, using force against the police in order to avoid arrest or trying so hard to avoid arrest that the police have to try really hard to arrest you. This often comes with a charge of aggravated assault, depending on the level of resistance used. This offense is a misdemeanor.
  • Public Intoxication or Public Drunkenness: Public intoxication is voluntarily appearing in public when you are so intoxicated that you pose a danger (or annoyance) to yourself or others. This is a summary offense.

While most of the charges are relatively straightforward, the offense of disorderly conduct is often problematic. In recent years, there have been several incidents where law enforcement has charged defendants with disorderly conduct for using profanity towards police. However, “flipping the bird” and using profane language towards police is protected speech under the First Amendment.

As a result of a new ordinance passed by the Pittsburgh City Council, demonstrators face an additional offense during next week’s summit. Anyone who is caught with “certain items intended to obstruct a public right-of-way, block emergency response equipment or thwart police attempts at breaking up a crowd” may be charged with a summary offense. Those items include: “noxious and/or toxic substances, gas masks, projectile launchers, animal or human waste, animal or human blood, rotten eggs, acid, gasoline, manufactured gases or sprays, and alcohol.” The ordinance is set to expire on September 30th, 2009.

Coming tomorrow: What to do if you are arrested at the G20 summit