A place where individuals reside or which they frequent for purposes that pose a threat to public health, morals, convenience, or safety, and that may create a publicnuisance. A disorderly house is an all-inclusive term that may be used to describe such places as a house of prostitution, an illegal gambling casino, or a site where drugs are constantly bought and sold. It is any place where unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public.
Various offenses concerning disorderly houses exist at common law and under criminal statutes. The maintenance of a disorderly house is considered to be an ongoing offense and, at times, the offense involves a specific type of place, such as a bordello or gaming house. The offenses are divided into four classes, which encompass keeping or maintaining a disorderly house, letting a house to be used as a disorderly house, frequenting or abiding permanently in a disorderly house, and disguising a disorderly house by displaying a sign of an honest occupation—such as disguising a house of prostitution as a dress shop.
In most jurisdictions, the maintenance of a disorderly house is an offense and, in order to be valid, each statute must clearly state the nature of the offense. Ordinarily, most statutes merely define the common-law offense rather than create a new statute. In states with statutes that provide for the punishment of an offense but do not define what a disorderly house is, the common law is examined to determine what the definition should be. In contrast, where the statute embodies a characterization of the house as well as prohibited conduct therein, the statute itself determines what constitutes the offense.
The prohibition against disorderly houses and the offenses they encompass are valid exercises of the police power of the state.
The elements of the offense of maintaining a disorderly house depend on statutory provisions that vary from state to state. A place may be named a disorderly house if alcohol is sold on the premises and if the law in that jurisdiction prohibits such sale. Essential to all offenses involving disorderly houses is the character of the house.
House or Other Building or Place The commission of the offense is dependent upon the presence of a house or place of public resort, the physical characteristics of which are immaterial. A disorderly house may be any place, including a room in a building or a steamship, an apartment, a garden, or a space under the grandstand at the racetrack.
The character of the place as a public resort is important. The general rule is that a disorderly house must be a place to which the general public or a segment of the public retreats for immoral purposes without prior invitation. A disorderly house may be used for other purposes that are not prohibited by law in addition to immoral purposes, but this in no way affects its classification as a disorderly house.
Annoyance or Injury to the Public The annoyance to the general public, as opposed to anyone in particular, is an essential element of the definition of a disorderly house. This annoyance or injury is based on the fact that activities being conducted are considered detrimental to public morals, welfare, and safety. They need not disturb the peace and quiet of a neighborhood to be construed as disorderly. A house where drugs are sold quietly or where a bordello is discreetly operated would be considered an endangerment to the public peace.
The liability of those concerned in offenses in connection with disorderly houses is not based upon their civil or contractual status. Some statutes specify who may be liable and in such cases, only those designated may be prosecuted. Partners, servants, and agents as well as the officers of a corporation have all been held liable for the operation of disorderly houses and the various offenses committed on the premises.