The Catholic University of America

Laws in the United States

The three local jurisdictions ( Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland) have regulations intended to "keep the peace" of the community. Under these laws you are expected to behave in a way that does not disturb or offend your neighbors, does not interfere with the flow of traffic and business. In addition to being familiar with laws that govern where you live, it is also important to understand how violating these laws may affect your immigration status and potential future travel plans.

It is very important to understand that legal definitions vary from state to state. Where possible, we have included a web address at the end of each behavior category for more specific information. For example, go to www.virginia.gov to check the state laws in Virginia.

It is important to know your rights in the event that you do encounter law enforcement officers.

Disorderly Conduct

Behavior that disturbs the peace is known as "disorderly conduct" and includes:

  • Acting in a manner that annoys, disturbs, interferes with, obstructs or is offensive to others.
  • Congregating in the streets and not moving on when told to do so by the police. This is closely related to "incommoding" which is the complete and continuous blocking of a street or sidewalk by at least three people preventing the use of the sidewalk or street or preventing the ability of others to enter a building.
  • Shouting or making loud noise at night - either inside or outside of a building - that disturbs other people.
  • Causing a disturbance in the metro, on a bus or other public mode of transportation.

Alcohol

The legal drinking age in the U.S. is 21. Drinking in public is illegal. If you are in a public space with an open container of alcohol, such as a bottle of beer, a cup of beer, or beer in a brown paper bag, you can be arrested. Drinking inside a restaurant, a bar, at sports stadiums, at someone's home, etc. is permissible if done on the property of those locations. Care must be taken that drinking does not lead to disorderly conduct.

Driving while under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense in the U.S that can result in arrest. If you have been drinking it is recommended that you not drive until the alcohol has left your system.

Access http://www.ncadd.org/ for information about federal and state laws and alcohol consumption. 

Drugs

It is illegal to use and distribute drugs that are not prescribed to you. Examples of controlled substances are:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opium
  • Heroine
  • PCP

Anyone found in possession of a controlled substance will be arrested. For more information about illegal drugs go to www.dea.gov

Domestic Violence

The U.S. has very strict laws governing the domestic relationships that are designed to protect the individuals from physical and mental harm and abuse. Domestic offenses can include things such as:

  • Spousal abuse
  • Stalking

The U.S. has a much lower threshold than some other countries in determining what domestic violence is. In the U.S. domestic partners (husbands/wives, boyfriends/girlfriends, ex-husbands/ex-wives) are not allowed to engage in behavior that results in physical or mental harm to the partner. You are not allowed to hit, punch or otherwise inflict physical or psychological abuse on your partner. 

Once the police know about a situation involving domestic violence, they must take action. If there is evidence of physical abuse or if there is evidence that one person is a threat to another, the person perceived as the abuser will be arrested and taken to the police station. Even if the spouse does not want the police to take the person away, U.S. authorities will continue to file charges and bring the case to court. 

Stalking

The legal definition of stalking is different in each state. However, most state definitions contain three parts:

  • Willful behavior that
  • Threatens the safety of a victim and
  • Results in victim fear.

Stalking is illegal. Please see www.nameofstate.gov for more information about stalking laws in your state. 

Child Abuse or Neglect

There are many laws designed to protect children. If you have children, you are responsible for ensuring that they are appropriately cared for in a safe, healthy way that promote their well being. The U.S. defines child abuse very broadly - much more broadly than in many other countries. If you have children, you must be careful when:

  • Disciplining children with physical force. The legal line between discipline and abuse is very thin. Spanking is viewed by many as a form of abuse.
  • Leaving a child unattended, even if only for a few minutes. It is illegal in this country to leave a child alone in a car while you "run a quick errand."
  • Children under the age of 12 should not be left alone at home.