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Riot Criminal Charges (Failure to Disperse) in New Jersey

While the right to peacefully assemble is one of the foundational freedoms all Americans can enjoy under the Constitution, the line between a protest and a riot can be thin. Law enforcement officials sometimes press charges against protestors, even if their behavior is still lawful.

A conviction for rioting, failure to disperse, or a similar charge can hurt your job prospects, make it more difficult to get a loan, affect child custody arrangements, and have other serious impacts on your life.

If you were recently arrested or received riot charges in Atlantic City, or any other part of New Jersey, contact a criminal defense lawyer for a free consultation at Clark, Clark & Noonan, LLC by calling (732)303-7857.

We offer free criminal defense consultations, and we are available 24/7 to make sure you have access to quality representation whenever you need it. To learn more, call our office today or visit our contact page.

Difference Between Protesting and Rioting

The right to peacefully assemble is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A key word there is “peacefully.” While protests are a form of protected speech, the law does not protect those who escalate their behavior to the level of violence, destruction of property, theft, and so on.

Understanding the distinction between a political protest and a riot is critical if you want to avoid being arrested while exercising your constitutional freedoms.

In New Jersey, the law that defines rioting is statute NJSA 2C:33-1. According to the statute, a person is guilty of rioting if they engage in “disorderly conduct” with four or more people with the purpose of committing a crime, preventing or coercing official action, or if any of the five partisans use a gun or other deadly weapon. That last provision is important. If any of the five people in the group uses a gun or another deadly weapon, all five could be charged with rioting under 2C:33-1.

It’s also important to know how “disorderly conduct” is defined as it pertains to this law. As far as a rioting charge goes, disorderly conduct is when someone either acts in a violent or threatening manner or if their behavior creates a hazardous situation for others without a legitimate purpose.

For example, this ambiguity is similar to recent protest events in Atlantic City during racial inequality protests and in other parts of New Jersey as well. Many people were arrested and charged in Atlantic City, even though they were not directly a part of the violent acts.

The legal language with these situations is always somewhat vague, which is why you need a qualified civil disobedience lawyer if you’re charged with rioting in New Jersey.

In addition to rioting, the other common offense that protesters may face for their actions is “failure to disperse.” This offense is defined in the same statute that defines rioting. According to the language of the statute, if a group of five or more people is engaging in disorderly conduct and are asked to leave by a police officer or other official, they must do so, or they may be found guilty of failing to disperse.

Can You Be Arrested for Protesting?

Engaging in protest can be a risky action. While we do not want to discourage you from standing up for your beliefs, you should understand the potential complications that come with engaging in protest activity. You can easily be arrested even for relatively innocuous actions at a protest. If the arrest results in a conviction, the consequences could follow you for the rest of your life.

While protests are recognized as protected speech, courts have also ruled that governments are allowed to place certain restrictions on when and how protests can take place. You cannot be arrested simply for protesting, but if you block a street, trespass on private property, or fail to follow instructions from the police, you could be charged with disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, resisting arrest, or a related offense.

Penalties If Charged with Riot or Failure to Disperse

Under the language of NJSA 2C:33-1, rioting is a fourth-degree felony in New Jersey, unless one of the participants uses a gun or other deadly weapon, in which case it’s upgraded to a third-degree felony.

Depending on the severity of the specific riot charges and situation, you could face:

  • jail time
  • community service
  • fines
  • restitution charges.

If you or one of the other participants used a gun or some other weapon, you could face much tougher penalties.

Disorderly conduct charges and failure to disperse charges also carry potential penalties like:

  • jail time
  • community service
  • fines
  • restitution charges, etc.

However, the more serious penalties from a rioting, disorderly conduct or failure to disperse charge may come later in life. Many potential employers, especially those in the public sector, will be reluctant to hire someone with a felony conviction.

In some cases, simply being arrested is enough to bar you from a job, even if you weren’t convicted. This is in addition to other problems that can come from an arrest or conviction: difficulty getting loans, adverse impacts on child custody arrangements, trouble applying for certain professional licenses, and more.

If you find yourself facing a ‘riot’ or failure to disperse criminal charge, it’s important to get immediate help from qualified lawyers. The criminal defense lawyers at Clark, Clark & Noonan, LLC are former prosecutors who are well-versed in the laws on protests and riots, and we know how to fight these charges.

How to Fight a Riot Charge

To successfully prove a riot charge, the prosecutors must show that you were engaging in disorderly conduct with the purpose of committing or facilitating a crime, or that you were attempting to prevent or coerce some official action.

There are two broad categories of disorderly conduct:

Improper behavior and offensive language.

Improper behavior refers to things like fighting in public, making threats, and other violent actions. While these things sometimes happen at protests, disorderly conduct also applies in situations like bar fights or other instances of public violence.

Offensive language may be charged if the person is making loud, vicious, or obscene remarks in a public space with the intent of disturbing or aggravating passersby.

There are a few ways to argue against a charge of rioting. Your best option may be to show that you weren’t engaging in disorderly conduct. Typically this means somehow proving that you weren’t attempting to commit or facilitate a crime. If your actions were confined to legal protest activity and not violence, looting, etc., it may be much less likely that the prosecution can prove their case.

If you’re accused of trying to prevent or coerce some type of official action, or if someone in your group is accused of using a deadly weapon, fighting the charge may be a bit trickier. The most likely scenario for this type of charge is if a police officer asks your group to disperse, and you fail to do so. In any case, your best bet is to hire a criminal defense attorney to aid in your defense.

How a Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help

Because a conviction for rioting, failure to disperse, or a similar charge can have such drastic consequences for your future, it’s essential that you seek out a qualified criminal defense attorney if you’re arrested.

Why choose Clark, Clark & Noonan, LLC? As former prosecutors, our criminal defense team knows the strategies for getting convictions in these cases – which means we also know how to beat those strategies. Our team is here to defend your rights and make sure you have legal representation when it matters most. We prepare all cases as if they’re headed to trial, and our attorneys all have extensive trial experience, but we’ll also do whatever we can to prevent you from ever seeing a courtroom.

Because protests can be unpredictable, you need a legal team that’s available whenever you need help. That’s why our office is available 24/7. No matter when you need us, we’ll be here for you. Our case results show that we’re fully committed to providing an aggressive, full-throated defense of our clients. We take all criminal defense cases seriously, especially those involving our clients’ rights to free speech and political protest.

Facing any criminal charge is a frightening, frustrating experience. That’s why your choice of a defense attorney is so crucial. We want to bring our previous experience on the other side to bear on your case so we can help you when you need it most. When you schedule your free initial consultation, we’ll review the facts of your case and let you know what your best options may be.

To schedule your consultation, call our office today or click over to our contact page. The sooner you call, the sooner we can start preparing your defense.


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