California Indecent Exposure Laws: An Overview

California Indecent Exposure Laws: An Overview
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Some states attempt to prohibit anyone from displaying their genitals in public no matter what the situation, but California indecent exposure laws are specifically written in a way to prevent people from showing their genitals to others for either sexual or offensive purposes, while not outlawing public nudity outright. Because this law relies so much on the intent of the person exposing themselves, there is a lot of ambiguity as to what specific acts are considered to be indecent exposure. In many cases, indecent exposure charges are filed along with lewd conduct charges, which involve actually touching yourself or another person in a sexual manner rather than just engaging in exposure.

California Indecent Exposure Laws

California indecent exposure laws prohibit the act of exposing any part of a person's genitals in a way designed to offend or annoy someone else or for that person's or someone else's sexual gratification. This means that going nude at a beach for the purpose of sunbathing, relieving oneself in public when there's no bathroom, and breastfeeding in public are not examples of indecent exposure because these acts are not for the purpose of sexual gratification or offending someone. On the other hand, if a woman bares her breasts to a busload of tourists hoping to arouse them, or if a man exhibits his penis to offend a senior citizen, they could be charged with indecent exposure.

There are a lot of grey areas when it comes to the crime of indecent exposure since it is so heavily focused on intent. For example, while urinating in public doesn't usually meet the definition of indecent exposure, if someone who is sexually aroused by urination relieved herself in public for sexual reasons, she could be charged with the crime. But it would be the burden of the prosecution to prove that it was for the purpose of sexual arousal.

A more common issue when it comes to whether or not someone is guilty of indecent exposure occurs when someone runs naked in front of a large group of people in the act known as streaking. The intent of someone streaking may be for sexual gratification, to offend others, to prove his bravery to others or simply as a joke, so it can often be difficult to prosecute someone for indecent exposure who has gone streaking, unless the streaker himself has made a statement regarding his intention.

Indecent Exposure at Home

While most of these cases occur in public, many people question whether you can be charged with indecent exposure in your own home in California. In fact, the law applies to public areas "or in any place where there are present other persons to be offended or annoyed thereby." This means that while rare, it is technically possible to be charged for indecent exposure in your own home if there were people present that may be offended or annoyed by the behavior. In most cases, this wouldn't apply if someone was at home with her family and friends, but if she held a public charity auction in her home and started baring and rubbing her breasts in front of everyone, she could be charged with indecent exposure even though she never left her own home.

Of course, someone must also have the intent to expose his genitals to others in order to violate the law. So if a man stood naked in front of his window making sexual poses to impress his lover and he was unaware a crowd on the sidewalk outside could see him, he wouldn't be guilty of indecent exposure.

Penalties for Indecent Exposure in California

In most cases, first-time offenders charged with indecent exposure will be charged with a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Although the crime is a misdemeanor, it is still a very serious charge – anyone convicted of indecent exposure is required to register as a sex offender. In 2019, anyone required to register on the sex offender list in California must do so for the rest of his life, but as of January 1, 2021, the state goes to a three-tier sex offender registry system, and a conviction for indecent exposure will then result in a minimum of 10 years on the sex offender registration list.

California has more serious indecent exposure sentencing guidelines for repeat offenders and those who commit aggravated indecent exposure, which happens when someone exposes herself to others in a home, trailer or building that she entered without permission. This charge can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, the sentence is mostly the same as basic indecent exposure with a maximum jail term of up to one year, rather than six months. But when charged as a felony, the sentence is 16 months, two years or four years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Aggravated indecent exposure also carries lifetime registration as a sex offender and a 10-year registration under the revised system that will go into effect in 2021.

Repeat offenders of the state's indecent exposure laws, as well as those who are charged for the first time for indecent exposure but have already been charged with lewd acts with a minor, will always face felony charges. In these cases, the penalty is the same as the felony penalties for aggravated indecent exposure.

Indecent Exposure Vs. Lewd Conduct

Lewd conduct is a similar crime as indecent exposure but it involves a person actually engaging or attempting to engage in the touching of his own or someone else's genitals in public or somewhere exposed to public view. Merely having sexual relations alone or with someone else in public isn't necessarily considered lewd conduct, unless those involved knew or should have known that a person who might be offended by their conduct was present. If a couple is in an empty park at 2 a.m, for example, and believes they are alone, they would not be guilty of lewd conduct if they started having sex together unless someone came to the park and made their presence obvious.

Lewd conduct is often charged along with indecent exposure since the circumstances involved in both crimes are quite similar. These charges are misdemeanors punishable by up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. Unlike indecent exposure, lewd conduct charges do not require registration on the sex offender list. Because this crime does not result in sex offender registration, plea bargains between prosecutors and defense attorneys often end up with exposure charges being reduced to lewd conduct.