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Public Nuisance Laws – Penal Code 372, 373a PC

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 22, 2023

California Penal Code 372 PC is the statute that prohibits someone from creating or maintaining a public nuisance. Penal Code 373a PC is the statute that makes it a crime for someone to maintain, permit, or allow a public nuisance to exist on a property they own or lease and do so after they receive written notice from a health officer or city lawyer that the nuisance must be resolved. 

These laws are designed to ensure mutual peace and well-being within communities. Thus, if you engage in an activity that disrupts that well-being—even if the activity itself isn't identified as a crime—it could be charged under the umbrella of creating or maintaining a public nuisance.  This misdemeanor offense can result in up to 6 months in jail if you are convicted.

California Public Nuisance Laws – Penal Code 372, 373a PC
A neighborhood dog that routinely barks excessively is just one example of a public nuisance.

PC 372 says, “Every person who maintains or commits any public nuisance, the punishment for which is not otherwise prescribed, or who willfully omits to perform any legal duty relating to the removal of a public nuisance, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

PC 373a says, “Each person who maintains, permits, or allows a public nuisance to exist upon their property or premises, and each person occupying or leasing the property or premises of another who maintains, permits, or allows a public nuisance to exist on the property, after reasonable notice in writing from a health officer, district attorney, city attorney, or city prosecutor to remove, discontinue, or abate the public nuisance has been served upon the person, is guilty of a misdemeanor. 

The existence of a public nuisance every day after the service of the notice is a separate and distinct offense. It is the duty of the district attorney of any city, the charter of which imposes the duty upon the city prosecutor to prosecute state misdemeanors, to continuously prosecute all persons guilty of violating this section until the nuisance is abated and removed.”

Related California Civil Code 3480 says, “A public nuisance affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal.”

What Constitutes a Public Nuisance?

Under California law, a public nuisance refers to anything harmful to health, offensive to senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood. However, the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal (Civil Code 3480). 

It's a broad term encompassing many actions or activities that negatively impact the public's rights or interests. The critical aspect is the substantial and unreasonable interference with a common right of the public.

As you can tell, many situations can be classified as public nuisance. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Excessive Noise: Regular, excessive noise, such as loud music at night from a venue, that disrupts the peace of a neighborhood. Another example includes a dog who barks excessively.
  • Pollution: Discharging harmful substances into air, water, or soil in amounts detrimental to public health or comfort, like a factory emitting toxic fumes.
  • Obstruction of Public Ways: Blocking public roads or pathways intentionally, causing inconvenience to the public.
  • Poor Property Maintenance: Neglecting property maintenance, leading to hazardous conditions for neighbors or passersby, like a building in danger of collapse.
  • Uncontrolled Animals: Keeping animals that regularly escape and cause harm or distress to others in the community.

What Does the Law Say?

Creating or maintaining a public nuisance in California is charged under one of two statutes: Penal Code 372 PC or Penal Code 373a PC.

A “public nuisance” in California injures somebody's health, offends someone, prevents the free use of property, and interferes with a community's enjoyment of life or property. A “community” can include an actual community, neighborhood, or a significant amount of people. 

Penal Code 372 PC

Penal Code 372 makes it a crime to maintain or commit a public nuisance for which the punishment isn't otherwise prescribed or to neglect any legal duty of its removal willfully. To convict you under this law, prosecutors must demonstrate one of two things:

  • You maintained or created a public nuisance (i.e., one that negatively affected the community or a significant group of people) or
  • A public nuisance situation occurred under your control, and you failed to perform your legal duty in removing it.

Penal Code 373a PC

Penal Code 373a is similar in scope to PC 372 except that it expands the blame for a public nuisance to someone who allows a public nuisance to exist on their property or premises or someone who occupies or leases another person's property and permits such a nuisance to persist after being notified by public officials to remove it. 

For example, if you're a landlord and your tenants are creating a public nuisance, you can be charged with a crime if a health official or prosecutor notifies you to deal with it and you fail to do so. To convict you of this crime, prosecutors must show that:

  • A public nuisance existed on your property or premises, or one that you occupy or lease,
  • A government official notified you to remove it, and
  • You failed to act within the given time frame.

Note that for something to be considered a public nuisance, it needs to be a constant situation or a regularly occurring event. One-time events are generally not charged under public nuisance laws.  For example, playing music too loudly on one occasion is not legally a public nuisance, but loud music played nightly would be considered a public nuisance.

What Are Related Crimes?

California's creating or maintaining public nuisance laws have some related crimes, such as the following:

What Are the Penalties?

Both PC 372 and PC 373a are misdemeanor offenses. If you are charged and convicted under either law, you could face:

  • Up to $1000 in fines and
  • Up to 6 months in county jail.

What Are the Defenses Against These Charges? 

When faced with charges under Penal Code 372 or 373a, creating or maintaining a public nuisance, a good California criminal defense attorney can raise several defenses. Common defenses include:

  • One-Time Event: You can argue that the alleged offense was a one-time occurrence and does not count as a public nuisance.
  • Temporary or Necessary Nuisance: This could form a strong defense if you can prove that the nuisance was temporary or necessary—for example, due to construction work or emergency repairs.
  • Minimal Impact on the Public: Another defense is to show that the activity didn't affect the entire community or many people. If the nuisance didn't interfere with public rights or cause significant harm, your attorney can argue that it does not constitute a public nuisance.

Contact our criminal defense law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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