Disturbing the peace tends to mean creating some type of noise that is bothersome to most people. Examples of this could include playing music extremely loudly, usually after 9 or 10 PM, or running equipment that makes very loud noises. The charge may fall under the umbrella of a group of charges called disorderly conduct or it could be considered separately. Exactly how the charge is considered tends to depend on each jurisdiction, but in many of them, this is a crime at the misdemeanor level, subject to at least fines and possibly jail time, though the latter is rare.
People have different tolerance levels for noise and police called out to deal with a disturbing the peace case may need to decide if a person’s conduct is really bothering many people, or only bothering one individual who complained. This may make a difference in how and whether charges are filed. When someone does complain of another person’s repeated conduct that they find disturbs the peace, even if no arrest occurs, or no charges are brought, it’s sometimes possible to sue people in civil court. This may be expensive and isn’t always winnable, particularly if the person bringing the charge has a very low tolerance for noise.
Additionally, many times if police do respond to allegations that someone is disturbing the peace they won’t immediately cite the person. A loud party going on next door might not end with a charge of disturbing the piece. Alternately, it could end with police breaking up the party, asking everyone to leave and issuing a strong warning. Tolerance of this nature may wear thin if the same people throw loud parties every weekend, and in these cases the police could consider citing the homeowners.
When someone is disturbing the peace, they’re violating not just the eardrums of others but a concept held dear in many societies. This is that people depend on a definition of public peace or order, and when people step outside of that definition, they make it difficult for others to peacefully go about their business. It’s possible to get a charge for loudly swearing in public because this offends some people and takes away their peace and comfort in being part of the society. These laws are really designed to promote manners so that all people maintain a minimum amount of good behavior toward each other.
Even if the law is mostly about manners, it’s no joke to get a disturbing the peace charge. It can cost money, might result in jail time, and remains on most people’s criminal records. There is a real consequence for stepping outside these “public manners” laws, and having to claim an arrest and criminal charge, even if a misdemeanor, can damage reputation, and chances for employment.