In People v. Munafo, 50 N.Y.2d 326 (1980), the New York Court of Appeals examined the issue of when private disputes become public in nature so as to constitute a violation of the disorderly conduct statute as intended by the Legislature.
In Munafo, the Court distinguished between situations which are largely private disputes between individual parties, and those which "carry beyond the concern of individual disputants to a point where they [had] become a potential or immediate public problem." (Id. at 331.)
In drawing this situational "line", the Court of Appeals held that in deciding whether an act carries public ramifications, a court must assess the nature and number of people attracted by the alleged commotion, while taking into consideration the surrounding circumstances, such as the time and location of the dispute at hand.
In People v. Munafo, the defendant behaved violently, in a public, albeit rural, place to protest actions of the State Power Authority, which had appropriated some of the defendant's land for a project. 50 NY2d at 329.
Even though there were bystanders, disorderly conduct was not made out. "Those present were small in number," and the defendant did not try to incite them or encourage them to assist him. Id. at 332. "
The differences between the authority and the defendant were confined to these two disputants rather than spread to the public." Id.
The Court of Appeals noted that the disorderly conduct statute was meant to address "situations that carried beyond the concern of individual disputants to a point where they had become a potential or immediate public problem." Id.
In other words, a private conflict between two people does not constitute disorderly conduct under § 240.20 unless there has been a of breach of the peace. Id. at 332.
To determine whether there has been public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, courts will consider such factors as the number of those attracted to the scene, the surrounding circumstances of the dispute, and the time and place of the incident. Id. at 331-32.
The New York State Power Authority was granted an easement on defendant Munafo's property over his vigorous opposition. Mr. Munafo, not satisfied with the granting of the easement, stood on his property and attempted to impede the Power Authority from exercising their easement rights. As a result, Mr. Munafo was charged with a crime "sounding" in trespass (50 N.Y.2d at 328).
The defendant was tried and convicted. The Court of Appeals, in reversing the trespass conviction, stated (at 330), "Munafo retained the ownership of the affected realty along with the underlying possessory interest ... Informative too is the long-recognized rule that the grantee of an easement may not maintain an action in trespass against the grantor, the person with the superior right of possession."
It appears that the Court of Appeals in Munafo focused on the "possessory" interest of the defendant Munafo, and not his ownership. Thus, the Court of Appeals seems to have adopted the "superior possessory right" definition of owner. This court notes that throughout other parts of the Munafo decision, the Court continued to use the term owner but with quotation marks (at 330).
The court has found no other New York decision discussing burglary or criminal trespass that even mentions possessory rights. The term used by the courts is "owner."